Wednesday 13 December 2017

Irish legal system 'obstructs reporters'

Dearbhail McDonald, Group Business Editor and former Legal Editor at INM, speaks at the event in Kilkenny Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Dearbhail McDonald, Group Business Editor and former Legal Editor at INM, speaks at the event in Kilkenny Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Michael O'Higgins Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Conor Gallagher

Ireland's legal system is less transparent than Panama's - and journalists who try to report fairly and accurately are "thwarted at every turn".

Independent News and Media (INM) Group Business Editor Dearbhail McDonald was speaking at the Bar of Ireland's annual conference on Saturday in response to remarks by senior counsel Michael O'Higgins.

Mr O'Higgins SC had criticised "sensationalist coverage" of high-profile trials such as that of murderer Graham Dwyer.

Ms McDonald, the former Legal Editor at INM, said the Irish system saw journalists as the enemy and made it incredibly difficult to access documents that were readily available in other countries.

The justice systems in the UK and the US had provisions to allow journalists and members of the public to electronically access court documents - but in Ireland reporters "need to rugby tackle a garda in the hallway" or rely on a friendly lawyer to get information, she said.

This creates "layers of privilege" where only select journalists get the documentation.

"I've attempted to access legal systems in foreign countries such as India, Vanuatu and Panama," Ms McDonald continued. "And I've come to the conclusion that it's easier at times to navigate the shadowy legal system of Panama than it was to navigate part of our own open justice system."

Leading barrister Mr O'Higgins SC, who has previously represented former Anglo Irish Bank CEO Sean FitzPatrick, used the conference to criticise publicity surrounding high-profile trials.

He said certain elements of the media put Graham Dwyer's 2015 trial in danger by publishing prejudicial material after Dwyer's arrest. He said that in the 18 months it took the DPP to charge Dwyer with Elaine O'Hara's murder, gardaí "relentlessly leaked information to the media". At some stages the media knew more about the case than Dwyer's defence solicitor, he added.

Two witnesses who met Ms O'Hara through a BDSM website gave evidence for the prosecution. Mr O'Higgins said it was understandable that these men's names and addresses might be published.

"But I would seriously question the venom with which those individuals were pursued to get a photograph of them," he said. "And I wonder what was the editorial decision behind this. Did they want to see what someone who uses these websites might look like, thinking that they had horns coming out of their heads, possibly?"

He said a third website user was "marginally more lucky" because he was in a car crash the day he was supposed to give evidence and didn't have to "run that gauntlet".

A trial can be thrown out because of pre-trial publicity according to Mr O'Higgins, but he claimed "this is an almost impossible bar to reach now."

Irish Independent

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