Friday 23 February 2018

Contempt law 'strong enough', insists FF after Jobstown trial

Josepha Madigan. Picture: Tom Burke
Josepha Madigan. Picture: Tom Burke

Cormac McQuinn and Kevin Doyle

The law is already strong enough to deal with contempt of court through social media, Fianna Fáil has insisted amid growing focus on online comment in criminal trials.

The party's justice spokesperson also said that the rules of contempt must apply to individuals as well as the media.

The use of Facebook and Twitter in the build up to, and during, jury trials is in the spotlight in the wake of the Jobstown verdict.

Fine Gael's Josepha Madigan has begun work on new legislation that would make it a statutory offence to comment on an ongoing criminal trial.

She has described some of the posts by Solidarity TDs during the trial of Paul Murphy and six others as "very menacing".

However, Fianna Fáil's Jim O'Callaghan said current laws "can deal with any contempt that is calculated to undermine the administration of justice".

While not addressing the Jobstown case directly, he said the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has the powers to take action where breaches have taken place.

Mr O'Callaghan said the rules of contempt must apply both to individuals and media organisations.

"Responsibility for ensuring that contempt does not occur rests in criminal trials on the DPP and the court.

"Although we will consider any legislative proposal that will be published, the law that exists at present can deal with any contempt that is calculated to undermine the administration of justice," he said.

The senior barrister said contempt arises when statements are published in a bid to undermine evidence or pressurise a jury. "The law on contempt is well established, and statements can constitute contempt irrespective of where they are published - on social media or otherwise," he said.

In the latter stages of the trial, Mr Murphy was warned by the DPP about his use of Twitter to comment on events in the courtroom. He subsequently deleted a series of tweets, including some posted while the judge was charging the jury.

During the trial his colleague Ruth Coppinger used social media to urge people to take time off work to fill the courtroom in order to send the jury as message that "the eyes of the world are watching them".

All of the accused were found not guilty of falsely imprisoning former tánaiste Joan Burton.

Read More: A fine line between commenting on and prejudicing a trial

Fine Gael member of the Oireachtas Justice Committee Alan Farrell said he also believes the use of social media in the context of a trial is already covered in law. He added that there's "no harm in reviewing laws" but questions over any case "is a matter for the DPP. That's what it is there for".

The DPP's office did not respond to queries from the Irish Independent on its monitoring of social media.

Meanwhile, the Garda Representative Association has claimed it suits the agenda of certain individuals to cast gardaí as "the State's bully boys".

It comes after officers gave evidence to the trial which was contradicted by video footage.

Rejecting claims there was a conspiracy against the accused, GRA spokesman John O'Keeffe said: "All we can explain is the rule of law, cases are prepared by gardaí, they go to the DPP, the DPP proffers the charges.

"The outcome of those cases are of no interest to frontline gardaí," he told RTÉ radio.

Irish Independent

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