Social media a big challenge for courts, says Chief Justice

RTÉ executive says it faces legal actions from ‘some well-known political figures’

Mrs Justice Susan Denham: the “most obvious problem” is ensuring a fair trial. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

Mrs Justice Susan Denham: the “most obvious problem” is ensuring a fair trial. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

 


The questions raised by social media are some of the biggest facing the courts system, the Chief Justice has said.

Mrs Justice Susan Denham said the “most obvious problem” was ensuring a fair trial, given that social media could instantly turn up a plethora of information, “accurate or inaccurate, libellous or complimentary” on jurors, witnesses, defendants, barristers and judges.

There was also a sense that judges getting involved on social media in a professional capacity “might compromise ethical standards.”

“Trying to regulate – for lack of a better word – what goes on in social media is a real challenge,” she said. “How that medium is used in respect of court cases must be guided in some manner. This is becoming one of our biggest challenges.”


Dilemmas
In a speech to mark UN World Press Freedom Day at the Four Courts yesterday, the judge said Twitter posed particular dilemmas in the courtroom. She said: “Let us imagine that following some evidence or remark, a tweet is sent and then the judge rules it inadmissible, or to be ignored by the jury. It must not be reported by the press. But via social media it is already out there.”

So far the media had shown great professionalism in tweeting from court, waiting for evidence or parts of a hearing to complete before doing so, “but it is an area to which we need to be attentive”, she added.

Reflecting on the wider role of the media and the courts, Mrs Denham said it was vital that people have access to proceedings through a vibrant and free media. Only through it could the public gain an informed understanding of what happens in courts and why judges decide as they do – a prerequisite for acceptance of the law and, ultimately, a flourishing democracy. “That the media does so in such an excellent manner is well recognised, maybe not by all of us, all of the time, but by many of us most of the time,” she said.


Freedom of expression
Mrs Denham noted that the right to freedom of expression was not absolute, but that courts were reluctant to restrict the media except “when necessary” to protect the administration of justice.

In a separate address, RTÉ’s managing director of news and current affairs Kevin Bakhurst said one of the ways broadcast news was under pressure was through increased and costly legal challenges and threats.

He said RTÉ was facing legal actions from “some well-known political figures”. While some actions were fair, others were “spurious, expensive and are a public game of who-blinks-first, with a major price tag attached on our side – and where we are dealing with public money.” He added there were “a small number of extremely wealthy and extremely litigious individuals who seek to use the courts to shut down any public debate or discussion of their affairs – which in most cases would be perfectly legitimate areas of exploration or discussion. I think probably enough said on that one.”