Friday 22 September 2017

Restrictions thwarting reporting of court cases

Vincent Crowley and Dearbhail McDonald of INM. Picture: Arthur Carron
Vincent Crowley and Dearbhail McDonald of INM. Picture: Arthur Carron
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

More openness and greater access to information is needed in the Irish courts system to assist the fair and accurate reporting of legal proceedings, a conference has heard.

The NewsBrands Ireland Open Justice Conference was told the system here is lagging far behind many other countries when it comes to access enjoyed by the public and the media to court submissions.

The conference highlighted restrictions facing media and the implications this is having on fair and accurate court reporting. Ireland is rare among common law countries in that in most of our courts - the Supreme Court being the exception - there are no defined procedures allowing access to written legal submissions.

Members of the public, as well as the media, have no formal way of securing access to documents, including court statements and submissions, that are opened and relied upon in legal proceedings.

Access to material such as CCTV and recordings of garda interviews is also virtually non-existent in criminal trials.

Conference speaker John Battle, a leading British media lawyer and head of compliance at ITN, said England and Wales have had a defined protocol for the past decade which allows access to court documents, CCTV and police interviews.

"The most important thing with all these initiatives is that the sky has not fallen down," he said.

"Trials have not been affected, there have been no real problems. But the real change is that the public are given more information about court cases and their legal system. It leads to greater understanding and engagement with the legal process."

Mr Battle said adopting modern methods of communication was vital not only for the general public, but also for the legal system itself. He said it was important the justice system "does not become a backwater understood by few and with little engagement with the public".

Dearbhail McDonald, group business editor at Independent News & Media, pointed to the US, England, Wales, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa where court documents are publicly accessible via a variety of systems.

"But in Ireland, our capacity to report proceedings in a fair, full and contemporaneous manner is thwarted at every turn," she told attendees at the event, held in the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin last night.

"As the Supreme Court has ruled, any curtailment of the press must be viewed as a curtailment of the access of the people to the administration of justice," she said.

Also speaking at the event, Olivia O'Kane, a partner with Carson McDowell LLP in Belfast, said Northern Ireland's justice system had been working with the media there to launch a media protocol which is hoped to be signed off before the end of the year.

Irish Independent

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