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Chief Justice grapples with social media in court

17 Nov 2018 / courts Print

New practice direction bans 'hobby' journalists

Chief Justice Frank Clarke (pictured) will today announce a new practice direction for social media in court.

He is speaking at a seminar of journalists on the difficulties some use of social media is having on court cases. 

The seminar, organised jointly by the Courts Service and the NUJ, will examine the question of access to information and court reporting.

The Chief Justice said “It is clear that there needs to be guidelines regarding the ‘who, when and what’ of using social media in courtrooms.

New Practice Direction

"From this month on a new Practice Direction – signed by the Presidents of all the Court jurisdictions – will limit the use of court based data messaging and electronic devices, to bona fide members of the press and bona fide lawyers with business in the courts.

"Both sets of professionals know the limits of what they can report and when. Others in court will be unable to text or message from the courtroom – in any form. 

He added that “If the experience of the operation of this practice direction provides evidence that it needs to be reinforced by new legislation, we will ask for this to be considered”. 

He also said that the “issue of legal reform of contempt and privilege should be addressed to take cognisance of the new reality of instant communication" and wished the Law Reform Commission well in its review of the area.

"The impact of any changes needs to be discussed with the legal professions, DPP, CSS, and an Garda Síochána," he said. 

Integrity of a Fair Trial 

The Chief Justice said that “the key legitimate concern of the courts is to ensure the integrity of the trial process and the maintenance of a fair trial system.

"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. 

"To date it has been rare that courts in Ireland have had to use contempt of court laws to curb inaccurate and disruptive online communications about cases. But it would be extremely naïve of us not to plan for the future in this regard. 

"In recent times 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." 

Responsible Media 

He said that the print and broadcast media have given very little cause for concern in how they report and comment on court cases.

"In general they do so honestly, diligently and with great skill. They apply a restraint that stops them entering the arena by disparaging the intent of the court or focusing on claims not heard in court, shouting from the side-lines - trying to influence the referee as it were.

"That referee can be either a judge or a jury. Contempt law rightly attempts to prevent such influence." 

False Claims from Others 

He said, “we must acknowledge that some concerns over social media are 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 court room."

Bullying and dangers online 

"Despite the great good social media brings to many areas of life and society, such as the banishment of isolation, or providing a link to the past or to those distant: false claims can target the individual to the detriment of their reputation, health, and or even existence.

"Online lies and bullying can and have led to death for some. 

"There are also dedicated and organised attempts at damaging others, from both those with an interest in maintaining the status quo and those who seek to disrupt power. 

"In some respects social media is a democratisation of influence. In other respects it is a challenge to democracy if anyone seeks to own or control much of social media as the new public sphere," the Chief Justice concluded. 

Contempt of court

Ray Byrne, Commissioner of the Law Reform Commission, will also address the issue of social media and contempt of court from outside the court room at today's seminar.

Sian Jones, President of the National Union of Journalists, will talk about how journalists can ‘keep it safe and sane’ in and out of courtrooms.

Kevin O’Neil, chief registrar of the High Court central office will speak on accessing court documents in a talk entitled “The Life of a High Court”.

Peter Mullan, director of Circuit and District Operations of the Courts Service, will speak about what can and can’t be accessed in Circuit and District Cases.

Challenges

RTE Legal Affairs Correspondent Orla O’Donnell RTE will talk about the highs and lows and challenges of court reporting. 

The seminar takes place at the Criminal Courts of Justice today.

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