Research office giving judiciary added weight

Judges make 125 requests for information in five weeks

Judicial researchers with the Courts Service (from left) Jane Murphy, Michelle Lynch, Katharine O Cathaoir and Lisa Scott picutred in the Judges Library in Dublin.photograph: aidan crawley

Judicial researchers with the Courts Service (from left) Jane Murphy, Michelle Lynch, Katharine O Cathaoir and Lisa Scott picutred in the Judges Library in Dublin.photograph: aidan crawley

 

Amid the lofty stacks of files and folders that judges are forever rifling through on the bench, there’s one that many of them hold especially dear. It’s known as the bench book - a type of personal reference work, often compiled and added to over many years, which contains easy-to-access, commonly-referenced information on their area of expertise.

The bench book of a judge who specialises in criminal law might include a set of the most relevant crime legislation, the leading cases, procedural guidelines, suggested jury directions and sample orders.

Like many practices in the judiciary, the bench book has evolved in an ad hoc, isolated way. But marshalling such information for the benefit of the collective is one of the tasks assigned to the Judicial Researchers Office, the team of six based in the Four Courts in Dublin. A current project is to upload one of the most comprehensive bench books on crime - compiled by the retired judge Anthony Kennedy - onto the judges’ intranet so that it can be consulted by all members of the judiciary.

The Irish Times was given a glimpse of the intranet for a feature on sentencing analyses, which was published in the paper last week. The site, accessible only to judges and Jane Murphy, the senior researcher, contains regularly updated data on sentencing patterns as well as copies of relevant papers and speeches and other practical information. Every month, a newsletter is circulated to judges informing them of recently-added material.

Moreover, the office is “on call” for any requests for information judges may have. And they’re using it: in the five weeks after Easter, the office received 125 requests from judges.

The most closely-watched project, however, is the sentencing initiative - a valuable first step towards getting a proper handle on one of the most sensitive of legal topics. Reports have already been published on sentencing in cases of rape, manslaughter and robbery, and the aim is to cover indictable crime for all of the most commonly prosecuted serious offences.

“The great value of reports of this nature is that they take a broad approach and they cover a sufficiently wide sample of cases that one can get a far more accurate picture of what happens on a day-to-day basis in the courts,” says Tom O’Malley, senior lecturer in law at NUI Galway.