Friday 20 September 2019

Tweets ban for public in courtrooms on the way

No live updates allowed in interest of fair trial

Tweeting, texting and other forms of live social media updates during court cases will be strictly confined to working journalists and lawyers, Chief Justice Frank Clarke has said. Stock Image
Tweeting, texting and other forms of live social media updates during court cases will be strictly confined to working journalists and lawyers, Chief Justice Frank Clarke has said. Stock Image

Alan O'Keeffe

Tweeting, texting and other forms of live social media updates during court cases will be strictly confined to working journalists and lawyers, Chief Justice Frank Clarke has said.

All other people attending a court sitting will be banned from using smartphones, laptops and other devices capable of accessing social media. This will ensure the right to a fair trial is upheld, he said.

The new directive comes into force in all courts from November 26. It was announced at a seminar organised by the Courts Service and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

Bona-fide members of the press and bona-fide lawyers with business in the courts are professionals who "know the limits of what they can report and when", the chief justice said.

"Others in court will be unable to text or message from the courtroom - in any form.

"The potential for unregulated social media to have an impact on the fairness of the trial process itself is, in my view, a legitimate and particular concern of the judiciary.

"It has become apparent that there is a need for guidance and rules on use of social media and digital devices in courts.

"This extends to the use of social media by observers of a case, and to a lesser extent, the use of same by jurors."

Mr Justice Clarke paid tribute to the print and broadcast media as having given "very little cause of concern" in how they report and comment on court cases.

But he said some concerns over social media were "both widespread and real".

"There are genuine concerns over the dissemination of false and malicious claims - which damage social debate, learning and understanding.

"Such false claims can come just as much from the organised and powerful as they can from the single contrarian in a basement, or a 'hobby journalist' in a courtroom."

The NUJ's assistant general secretary, Seamus Dooley: said "Bona-fide journalists manage to provide comprehensive analysis of complex cases on a daily basis."

Referring to non-journalists tweeting from courtrooms, he said: "You simply cannot summarise a nuanced submission or judgment in 260 characters.

"The role of the much-maligned mainstream media is becoming even more significant as the source of authoritative information delivered calmly, soberly and for a journalistic purpose."

Ray Byrne, commissioner of the Law Reform Commission, said later that people who used social media to state something that contravened reporting restrictions could end up being jailed.

Such breaches of court rules can risk a trial having to be abandoned. In such cases, the person breaching the reporting rules could end up receiving a prison sentence, he said.

"The current law on contempt applies to somebody who is posting something on social media, particularly if it is going to be published," Mr Byrne said.

"You can't say something that would pre-judge the outcome. That would be a very clear contempt of court.

"If someone says that someone is completely innocent and they post that on social media, then that could be prejudicial to the outcome of the case. And, equally, if they say the person is definitely guilty, then that could also be regarded as a clear contempt of court.

"It is important, particularly in a very sensitive trial, where judges impose reporting restrictions for journalists who are in court, that they know those restrictions are in place. Not everybody knows about that.

"But it is very clear why it is being done - to protect the identity of not only the accused but, particularly in sexual cases, the identity of the complainant.

"It is very important that those who are reporting, in whatever form, whether in commenting on social media, maybe they have seen someone who has been involved in a court case that is still going on, that they do not break those very clear reporting restrictions."

The Law Reform Commission will publish a report next year on how the law should be reformed and ways to educate the public on what is permissible to uphold fairness in court reporting.

During a trial last year involving six people charged with offences arising from a water protest in Jobstown, Tallaght, there were concerns about prejudicial material being published online.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News