‘Open Justice’ Conference highlights restrictions facing media in accessing public court documents

 
 
John Battle, Olivia O'Kane and Dearbhail McDonald

John Battle, Olivia O’Kane and Dearbhail McDonald

A conference examining the issue of Open Justice and Media Access to Public Court Documents held by NewsBrands Ireland this evening, highlighted the restrictions facing media in accessing public court documents and the implications this is having on fair and accurate court reporting.

The objective of the conference was to promote openness and accuracy in the reporting of civil and criminal proceedings. In most Irish courts, there currently is no defined protocol allowing access to written legal submissions. This is inimical to assisting journalists reporting legal proceedings, particularly if there are complex legal and factual issues. Access to material such as CCTV and recordings of garda interviews is also virtually non-existent in criminal trials.

Ireland is rare among countries with a common law system in that there is no defined protocol allowing access to public court documents. Members of the public, as well as the media, have no way of securing access to documents, including court statements and legal submissions, that are opened and relied on in legal proceedings.

Commenting on the subject, Vincent Crowley, NewsBrands Ireland Chairman, said: “The Supreme Court has long recognised the role of the media in representing the eyes and ears of the public in reporting on court proceedings. To ensure fair and accurate reporting of proceedings, bona fide members of the press should have prompt access to a copy of any material opened to a court, or to which the court is referred, to facilitate the accurate reporting of proceedings to which the press is admitted.”

Speaking at the event, John Battle, leading media lawyer in the UK and Head of Compliance at ITN, outlined how the Open Justice system in the UK has been working very positively for the past 10 years thanks to a Protocol agreed between prosecution authorities, the police and the media.

“Adopting modern methods of communication by the courts is vital not only for the general public but also for the legal system itself. It is important that our justice system does not become a backwater understood by few and with little engagement with the public.  In the digital age the notion that open justice only goes as far as leaving the door of the court open is not sustainable.”

“In the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service Media Protocol has now been running for over ten years. Cameras have filmed the Supreme Court since its inception in 2009. The most important thing with all these initiatives is that the sky has not fallen down. Trials have not been affected, there have been no real problems….But the real change is that the public are given more information about court cases and their legal system. It leads to greater understanding and engagement with the legal process. For those involved in their system – judges, lawyers, prosecutions authorities – it has meant greater public understanding of what they actually do. That’s a good thing. For the media it means we’re better equipped to do our job and to inform the public.”

Also speaking at the Open Justice event was Olivia O’Kane, Partner and Solicitor Advocate working with Carson McDowell LLP in Belfast.

“The media play a vital role in holding our institutions to account and in connecting them with the public.  It improves communication to the public about the work of the police, the judiciary, and the outworking of the justice system. 

In pursuit of this very objective and in ongoing work to better improving open justice, the relevant organs of Northern Ireland’s justice system have been working with the media to launch a final working media protocol which is hoped to be signed off before the end of this year.”

Dearbhail McDonald, Group Business Editor and former Legal Affairs Editor with Independent News & Media, discussed the challenges currently facing the media in obtaining public court documents in Irish courts.

“The media in Ireland no longer go cap in hand to perform the important public service of covering our courts,” said Dearbhail McDonald.

“As the Supreme Court has ruled, any curtailment of the press must be viewed as a curtailment of the access of the people to the administration of justice. The media must be allowed to access court documents and material that form part of the public record. This is not mere media self-interest. It goes to the heart of a functioning democracy and an open society.

The prize is a public that has, through its media, confidence in the public administration of justice. That’s a prize worth fighting for”.

The NewsBrands Ireland ‘Open Justice’ conference was held in the Royal College of Physicians, No. 6 Kildare St. and attended by a number of media and law professionals. The event MC was Brenda Power, Journalist and Barrister-At-Law.

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For further details, please contact:

Lisa Buckley, Communications and Marketing Manager, NewsBrands Ireland

lbuckley@newsbrands.ie 087 7779259