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Burke family have keen understanding of legal system. So why are they waging a futile war against it?

Jennifer O’Connell: The evangelical family’s adventures in court are proof of the system’s resilience

When I first wrote about the Burkes of Castlebar a year ago – then an only moderately notorious family of high-achieving, homeschooled, evangelical Christians – someone on social media wisecracked that we would eventually need an entire branch of the judiciary dedicated exclusively to hearing their cases.

Twelve months on, that’s less an amusing quip than an astute prediction. Back then, the list of cases the 10 siblings had racked up was relatively modest. It included Ammi’s unfair dismissal claim against law firm Arthur Cox, eventually thrown out of the Workplace Relations Commission; a landmark Supreme Court judgment in Elijah Burke’s favour, which found that he and other homeschooled students had been unlawfully excluded from the 2020 Leaving Cert calculated grades scheme; a case four of the siblings took over a decision to bar them for life from membership of college societies at NUI Galway, which they claimed amounted to discrimination on religious grounds; Isaac’s success in a case against NUI Galway over a delay scheduling his final viva exams for his PhD, which saw him awarded €13,035 damages. “They are careful not to be doing anything that might overstep the legal limits of what they’re entitled to do [in court]. They don’t very often trip over,” an observer of the family’s various legal actions commented then.

Unfortunately, the familial talent for knowing how far they’d get away with pushing the boundaries of propriety before tripping up has betrayed them. Enoch Burke’s interminable legal wrangling with the management of his former employer, Wilson’s Hospital School, has so far seen him spend 108 days in Mountjoy Prison, rack up more than €24,000 in fines, and culminated in a related breach of the peace charge against his 24-year-old brother. Simeon Burke denies the charges against him, which follow an outburst in the Court of Appeal last month, and the contested hearing is due to take place before the District Court next week.

How did a family with keen minds and a good understanding of the legal system end up waging such a futile and ruinous war against it? The siblings are rightly proud of their academic achievements, elucidated in an email to this journalist by one sister, teacher Esther, last year. The 10 have, she wrote, “an average of 500-600 points in their Leaving Cert exams ... [with all of them] going on to study at third level, including Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE)”.


It is just a shame they haven’t put all of that brilliance to better use. Too often, cases involving one or other of the Burkes have descended into unseemly, embarrassing, disrespectful farce. Their theatrics seem to have alternately amused, bemused and infuriated the public and frustrated the judiciary. But the family’s adventures in court are not so much an indictment of the system as proof of its resilience. The less respect the Burkes show the court, the more it seems determined to show them. On one occasion during the Wilson’s Hospital School saga, the court sat at an earlier time of 9.30am. When Enoch Burke didn’t show, the judge deferred the hearing to 11am, and then gave him an extra 15 minutes, before finally proceeding. To a casual observer, this may seem excessively accommodating of an individual who treats our legal system like it has all the legitimacy of the lower courts of Turkmenistan. But the Burkes are lay litigants, and as such, it is not unusual for them to be afforded extra leeway.

Anyone who believes they are being detained unlawfully has a right to make complaint to the High Court, or have one made on their behalf. This includes individuals whom the court would be justified in finding very, very annoying

At the heart of our legal system is the notion that every individual is free to go to court to have their rights vindicated. Whatever else you might say about them, the Burkes are proof – again and again – that this principle remains sound, even under duress.

This week, High Court judge Anthony Barr granted an ex-parte application made by Ammi on behalf of Simeon for an inquiry into the legality of his ongoing detention in Cloverhill since that incident at the Court of Appeal on March 7th. Like his older brother, he does not have to remain in jail: he was granted bail on condition that he stay away from the Four Courts, but he refused to comply on principle.

On Thursday he argued passionately, at times emotionally, before the High Court that he was wrongfully arrested, “treated like an animal” and was physically injured during his removal from court. He is seeking an order directing his release from prison and one prohibiting his trial from proceeding. The State denied all of the claims regarding his arrest and detention, including that he is a victim of a conspiracy.

Observers may have rolled their eyes at the prospect of yet more court time diverted to a deep dive into the myriad perceived wrongs done against the Burkes, but again this was a sign of our legal system working as it should. Under the Constitution, anyone who believes they are being detained unlawfully has a right to make complaint to the High Court, or have one made on their behalf. This includes individuals whom the court would be justified in finding very, very annoying. Mr Justice Barr agreed with Ammi that enough evidence had been raised to merit the inquiry going ahead. As one legal observer privately noted last week, the history of internment without trial here makes the courts very assiduous about ensuring this right is protected.

By any measure, the Burkes have enviably sharp minds and a deep understanding of the legal system. The greatest tragedy here isn’t even the waste of court time or resources. It is the senseless squandering of all that intellectual heft on a futile quest to convince the world they are victims of a bizarre conspiracy.