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Review defamation law to protect court reporters, says AG


The State’s Attorney General Máire Whelan. Photo: Arthur Carron

The State’s Attorney General Máire Whelan. Photo: Arthur Carron

The State’s Attorney General Máire Whelan. Photo: Arthur Carron

The Attorney General has called for a review of defamation laws to ensure better protection of court reporters who perform an "important public service" and face one of the "most challenging assignments in journalism".

Attorney Máire Whelan told a large gathering of judges and lawyers at the Four Courts she believes reform of the defamation laws is necessary to avoid a "chilling" impact on the level and quality of court reporting people "expect and enjoy" here.

The Constitution requires that justice be administered in public, save in exceptional circumstances, and those reporting court proceedings are performing an important public service, she said.

They should not have to fear a "simple oversight, omission or error" in reporting court proceedings exposes them to risks of litigation, or claims in damages, with consequent risks to their livelihood.

There should be at least a debate, and consideration, of enshrining into Irish law a provision that no report of court proceedings should be actionable in defamation unless there was proof of "malice", the Attorney General said.

Consideration should be given to requiring those who seek to sue over court reports to get leave of the courts to do so and to demonstrate, in sworn documents, the bad faith alleged.

Ms Whelan made the comments during her tribute to the outgoing President of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, at a ceremony to mark his last day on the bench.

It was a tribute to Mr Justice Kearns that he had always been supportive of, and helpful towards, court reporters and journalists and willing to assist them in the important public service they provided in promptly reporting court proceedings accurately, she said.

Article 34.1 of the Constitution provides "save in special and limited circumstances as may be prescribed by law, justice shall be administered in public," she noted.

"Court reporters by their work execute this important constitutional value and thereby serve the public interest.

"One of the most challenging assignments in journalism in the State must be that of court reporter; subject to very tight deadlines, endeavouring to assimilate complex and involved details and present them in a clear, accessible and coherent fashion whilst getting names and titles correct," she added.

Meanwhile, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns warned of the potential Pandora's Box effect of decisions which impact on accountability for matters of serious public concern.

He said courts, in considering their decisions, should be "always mindful of the potential downstream implications".

"They should never put themselves in the position of realising, all too late, that a particular decision has opened a Pandora's Box of unintended consequences which, had proper consideration been applied at the relevant time, might have led to a different approach being taken."

Mr Justice Kearns started out in 1964 as a civil servant in the courts' central office before being called to the Bar in 1968.

He had a distinguished career and became a High Court judge in 1998.

Irish Independent