Chief Justice Susan Denham Sam Boal/

Chief Justice says courts may need to restrict social media use during trials

Susan Denham said there are issues to address in order to protect the right to a fair trial in this era of social media.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE is to write to the Presidents of each court to ask them to consider guidelines on the use of social media in the courts.

Launching the Courts Service annual report today, Susan Denham said the advent of social media has caused “a revolution in how we communicate”.

She acknowledged that social media is “a great tool for the mass dissemination of information”, but said concerns of its use in relation to the courts are “widespread and real”.

“There are genuine concerns over the dissemination of false claims – which damage social debate, learning and understanding,” she said.

After the conclusion of the recent Jobstown trial, the Irish Times reported that the Director of Public Prosecutions had written to Solidarity TD Paul Murphy about his social media use during the trial.

Denham said it was rare that courts in Ireland had to use contempt of court laws to curb online communications about cases, but added that it would be “naive of us not to plan for the future in this regard”.

There are several areas we need to address in protecting the right to a fair trial of an individual in this era of social media. The fundamental right to a fair trial does not change in the face of any new means of communication. Rules can and must reflect the new reality of same.

First, she said, the Courts Service needs to consider draft guidelines regarding the ‘who, when and what’ of using social media in courtrooms. This could result in new rules that would allow only media and legal professionals to use social media platforms in courtrooms.

It could also see judges issuing specific directions to juries in relation to their own social media use.

“Secondly, we need to have a discussion with those who work in and around courts about how such guidelines on what is appropriate on social media might work,” Denham said. “And thirdly, we need to look at legal reform to take cognisance of the new reality of instant communication.”

In this regard, I will this week send to the Presidents of each court a draft discussion paper on guidelines on the use of social media in the courts. I will ask the Courts Service to engage with the media and legal professions on this issue.

Chief Justice Denham will sit for the last time on Friday before she retires. Her replacement is expected to be announced by the end of this month.

Debt and bankruptcy

The Courts Service annual report, launched by Denham, revealed there was an increase last year in debt resolution cases before the courts and a 58% decrease in orders for possession. Bankruptcy cases were also up, with 526 people adjudicated bankrupt in the High Court last year. The majority of these were self adjudications – just 28 were on foot of applications by creditors.

There was also a 15% increase in personal injury cases – 22,000 in total last year. The highest award was €9 million and the lowest was €500.

In the criminal courts, 60% of orders at district level related to road traffic offences last year. There was an 8% increase in orders for drink driving offences.

The report revealed that there was an increase in the number of cases brought to the courts over ‘new drug related offences’ from 18,036 in 2015 to 20,726 in 2016. These offences usually relate to small amounts of a substance or possession for personal use.

There were 17 convictions for murder in 2016, nine for manslaughter and 545 for rape or sexual assault offences – an increase of 40% on 2015.

Today the Courts Service also announced it saved €5.5 million last year through the use of IT systems. There has been a 52% reduction in day to day costs for the courts since 2008.

“We have a modern administrative organisation to support the operation of our courts which has taken a huge effort to design and develop, and which has survived the great economic recession of the recent past,” commented the Chief Justice.

“Achieving this success was not easy, but its existence can be traced to great effort, planning transparency, governance, direction and clarity.”

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