Jobstown trial will not be contested on social media, says judge

Bail conditions may be changed to stop accused from commenting on the trials online

The upcoming trial of people facing charges over water charge protests held in Jobstown three years ago will be contested in court and not on social media, the judge who will hear the case later this year has declared.

In the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, Judge Melanie Greally told lawyers for the accused, who are all remanded on bail, that bail conditions may be changed to stop them commenting on the trials online.

During the first trial, which ended last month with the acquittal of all six accused, including Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, people who were not on trial made comments on social media, she said.

An issue arose near the end of the trial involving one of the defendants, the judge told Tuesday’s pre-trial hearing: “It was only from pre-emptive action that the trial was not derailed.”

Saying that the court is “not prepared to tolerate the kind of actions that preceded the first trial”, she said it had come to the court’s attention that a petition was arranged about jury selection during the first trial.

She said that anybody involved in a similar activity in future would be dealt with utmost seriousness and could be found in contempt of court and face prosecution.

Former Tánaiste Joan Burton and her adviser Karen O'Connell were blocked by protestors for about three hours when they left a graduation event at An Cosan Education Centre at Jobstown, Tallaght on November 15th, 2014.

Lawyers for some of the upcoming defendants said that they would oppose the linking of any bail conditions to commentary about the case. They said the court already has discrete powers to prevent contempt of court.

‘Disruptive online communications’

Meanwhile, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Courts, Mrs Justice Susan Denham said procedures are needed so contempt of court laws can be used against those who disrupt court proceedings using social media.

"To date, it has been rare that courts in Ireland have had to use contempt of court law to curb inaccurate and disruptive online communications about cases," Mrs Justice Denham said at the launch of the 2016 Annual Report of the Courts Service on Tuesday.

“It would be naive of us not to plan for the future in this regard,” she said. “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.”

A draft discussion paper on guidelines on the use of social media in the courts will be sent this week to the presidents of all the courts, and ask the Courts Service to engage with the media and the legal professions on the matter.

There has been some discussion already about the possibility of banning certain devices from courtrooms unless they are being used by legal professionals or journalists, as well as how to prevent jurors being influenced by social media or online material.

Enforcing rules

One of the matters to be considered is who in the system would be responsible for trying to enforce any new rules, for example, who would take mobile telephones off members of the public.

Saying he was "most anxious" for a speedy review, the Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan said: "Everyone is entitled to a free and fair trail, without outside interference," he said.

Mrs Justice Denham, who will have her last court appearance on Friday and retires next month, said it will be necessary in order to protect the right to a fair trial, it will be necessary to introduce “who, when and what” guidelines about social media in courts.

There has to be a discussion among those who work in and around courts about how such guidelines might work, she said, adding that there is a need to look at legal reform to take cognisance of the new reality of instant communication.