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Only journalists and lawyers to be allowed text and tweet in court says Ireland's top judge

Justice Frank Clarke says the direction is about ensuring fair trials.

Ireland's top judge, Chief Justice Frank Clarke.
Ireland's top judge, Chief Justice Frank Clarke.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THE CHIEF JUSTICE FRANK Clarke has said that Irish courts are to disallow everyone except “bone fide members of the press” and lawyers from texting and sharing electronic communications from within courtrooms.

The President of the Supreme Court said this morning that the new practice has been agreed by the presidents of all court jurisdictions and will come into effect this month.

Clarke said that the move is being taken to ensure “the integrity of the trial process”, adding that he feels “unregulated social media” is a legitimate concern.

The new guidelines take the form of a practice direction but Clarke said the judiciary will seek that be given legislative backing if it is needed. 

The Chief Justice was speaking this morning at a seminar organised by the Courts Service and the National Union of Journalists.

Making his address, Clarke outlined that judges needed to clamp down on who can text and share other digital communications in courtrooms.

“It is clear that there needs to be guidelines regarding the ‘who, when and what’ of using social media in courtrooms. 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 bone fide members of the press and bona fide lawyers with business in the courts,” Clarke said.

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.

“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 added.

Clarke said that implementing the new guidelines will require some “common sense” on behalf of the judges so that they don’t “overreact”.

If someone is found to be breaking the rules, the initial action will be to ask the person to stop. If not, they can be asked to leave. If that fails, they may be ordered to leave. 

Clarke went on to state that the maintenance of the fair trial system is the key reason for the change.

He noted that Irish courts have not regularly been forced to use contempt laws to “curb inaccurate and disruptive online communications about cases” but that it would be “extremely naive 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,” Clarke added.

The Chief Justice said it is hoped that the new rules will encourage proper reporting and discourage improper reporting.

Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan has welcomed this change this afternoon. Madigan tabled the Contempt of Court Bill 2017 last year in which she argued that laws were needed to prevent jurors being influenced by social media.

Writing in TheJournal.ie, Madigan said that the need for the rules was highlighted in the trial in which Paul Murphy TD was found not guilty of the false imprisonment of former Tánaiste Joan Burton.

Speaking today, Madigan said the move by the Chief Justice was “timely”:

The Supreme Court first called for changes in this law in the early 90s while legislation was first introduced in the UK in 1981. My contempt of Court Bill was the first attempt in this country to legislate for contempt despite judges, legal experts and journalists all calling for legislation in this area for some time.

“This move is a welcome first step. It will help prevent injustices from being done, protect the administration of justice and guarantee the right of every citizen to receive a fair and impartial hearing of their case.”

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Rónán Duffy

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