Titles for sale: legal action threatened over Advertising Standards Authority ruling

Published in Issue 2 (Summer 1999), News, News, Volume 7

An Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland ruling of last October has provoked a company which offers Irish titles for sale to threaten legal action against both the Authority and two complainants. The dispute has arisen following the ASAI’s upholding of a complaint made against an advertisement by Bailey, O’Rourke & Co. in Cara, the Aer Lingus magazine. The titles, with prices ranging from $16,750 to $21,450 (£11,000-£14,300) were offered ‘upon instruction from certain members of the Irish aristocracy and nobility’. Two complainants, Brendan O’Donoghue, Chief Herald of Ireland, and an unnamed member of the public objected to a number of elements of the advertisement. Among these was Bailey, O’Rourke & Co.’s promotion of ‘ownership of these rare and valuable “Lord” titles’ as bestowing ‘magnificent social and business benefits world-wide’. The suggestion that the titles are ‘fully recognised by all governments’ or that they include the right to use the word ‘Lord/Lady’ in a person’s title was also questioned by the complainants. Brendan O’Donoghue, who in addition to being Chief Herald of Ireland is also Director of the National Library of Ireland and former Secretary of the Department of the Environment, particularly pointed out that Article 40 of the Constitution provided that ‘titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State’ and that ‘no title of nobility or honour may be accepted by any citizen except with prior approval of the Government’. He said that his office had no functions in relation to the transfer or recognition of titles and that he knew of no other official agency in the country with such function. In these circumstances he said that mention of the terms ‘Selection Board’ and ‘Master Heraldic Officer’ in the advertisement tended to create confusion and might lead readers to believe that some form of State-recognised process, involving public officials, was involved.
The question of the ‘sale’ of ‘titles’ of various kinds has long been the subject of concern but this is the first time that a public body has become involved. The sale of ‘lordships of the manor’ is an established practice in England and their nominal nature and the legal situation surrounding them is relatively well understood and purchasers usually understand what they are getting. However, as Kenneth Nicholls pointed out in the Autumn 1996 issue of History Ireland, the situation regarding the sale of titles in Ireland is far less clear. In particular, while the Irish ‘feudal barony’ might be seen as analogous to the English lordship of the manor, advantage is being taken by vendors (usually Irish peers) over confusion with the administrative baronies established during the shiring of Ireland to sell titles to lordships that never even existed. The 1996 sale of the ‘Barony of Gorey’ for £30,500 by the Earl of Courtown is an example of the latter practice which attracted attention in the Irish media. Adding a further layer of confusion is the sale of ‘Gaelic titles’, another very questionable phenomenon of recent years.
The nature of the three titles on offer in the case before the ASAI was not specified in the advertisement but in their formal submission to the ASAI, Bailey, O’Rourke & Co. insisted that their advertisement was factually correct. They pointed out that according to Irish law, manorial lordships were covered by the Law of Property and that as such they would be recognised by all governments. They also insisted that at no point did the advertisement refer to the titles being offered as being titles of nobility or honour. According to the ASAI report on the case Bailey, O’Rourke & Co.’s response denied that the advertisement referred to the Selection Board as alleged by one of the complainants. They also pointed out that mention of a Master Heraldic Officer was to an internal company official and carried no inference that public officials were involved. This was among the points that the ASAI disagreed with in their decision to uphold the complaint. It also noted in its report the reference in the advertisement to the titles on offer being of ‘exemplary ancient lineage, and honour ’.
The threat of legal action arose early last November when The Sunday Times contacted Bailey, O’Rourke & Co. for a response to the decision. John Swift, a company representative, informed the paper that solicitors in Dublin had been instructed to begin proceedings against the authority and against the complainants. ‘We will be the first people in Ireland to take legal action against the authority. Their basis for being upset about the ad is legally wrong and unfounded. They have deliberately misled people on the facts and have released their comments in a public forum’.
Bailey, O’Rourke & Co.’s advertisement gave only a fax number but The Sunday Times reported that their journalists had discovered that the company has offices at the Harcourt Centre, Dublin. However, reporters could find no listing in the telephone directory for the company or for Dr Patrick B. Riley, named in the advertisement as its ‘Master Heraldic Officer’, or for Richard Patricks, another named company official. A search of the companies register by the paper also failed to turn up an Irish registration.
Edward McCumiskey, chief executive of the ASAI said that it had never been sued by an advertiser before: ‘Judgements are made by a complaints committee which has industry representatives and four nominees from the office of the director of consumer affairs. Complaints are considered solely in relation to the code of practice. We make no judgement on the product being sold or the price being offered.’


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