New measures to aid ‘justice being administered in public’

Courts Service says media to get wider access to court documents from August 1st

Journalists are to be given clear and uncontested access to court records for the first time under new guidelines being drawn up by the Courts Service. Photograph: Aidan Crawley.

Journalists are to be given clear and uncontested access to court records for the first time under new guidelines being drawn up by the Courts Service. Photograph: Aidan Crawley.

 

Journalists are to be given clear and uncontested access to court records for the first time under new guidelines being drawn up by the Courts Service.

The guidelines, which will come into effect on Wednesday, August 1st, arise from the Data Protection Act 2018 which gives effect, among other things, to the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union (GDPR).

At present, only so-called interested parties – that is, persons directly involved in the proceedings, as either plaintiff or defendant – are fully entitled to access documents.

While journalists are able to report almost everything that is said in an open court (the exception being legal arguments in the absence of a jury, until after the trial), unfettered access to the documents that form the basis of evidence being given – affidavits and other statements – is not automatic.

Although documents once referred to in evidence are deemed to have been “opened” in court, reporters often have to rely on personal contacts among lawyers, or the assistance of court officials, to obtain copies.

Having been opened in court, a reporter may quote the contents of such documents without fear of being sued for defamation. This is because opened documents are covered by the absolute, constitutionally-protected privilege that applies to proceedings in the courts.

The new guidelines will give a clear legal basis as to what information is accessible to journalists reporting civil and criminal cases before the courts, the Courts Service said in a statement.

‘Arrangements’

“Court offices will now be in a position to make arrangements to provide bona fide members of the media with the appropriate information needed to report such matters.”

The Courts Service said it would liaise with court reporters and our staff across the country to work on the logistics of this change.

The rules would be “strict on who can access information, what information they might access, and when; do not displace existing legal restrictions on reporting of certain types of court case (e.g. those affecting in camera proceedings or applying under the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967); and operate subject to any order or direction of the court in a case”, said the service.

Brendan Ryan, chief executive of the Courts Service, said the changes would lend practical support to the constitutional requirement that courts , with certain exceptions, administer justice in public.

“In the times we live in, the vast majority of people rely upon the media to provide them with accurate information on the operations of and the cases before the courts,” he said. “These changes will underpin the media’s ability and right to access the necessary information to report on the vast and varied number of cases which the courts hear annually.

“The changes are a transparent measure to support the role of an independent courts system in our democracy, while respecting both the restrictions which apply to certain categories of court proceedings, and the control which a court exercises over proceedings before it.”