Judge alters stance on information to journalists

 

A district court judge has backed down after issuing a directive to court staff to deny reporters access to court documents.

Last week the district justice in Co Clare, Judge Joseph Mangan, told staff that if reporters wished to view court documents, such as summonses and charge sheets on defendants, an application would have to be made to him.

The move provoked an angry response from the secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Séamus Dooley, who accused Judge Mangan of acting outside his powers in issuing the directive.

Confirming that the NUJ intended to lodge a formal complaint to the Courts Service, Mr Dooley said: "It is unacceptable behaviour that runs contrary to recent developments by the Courts Service, where it has led the way in allowing information relating to court business to be accessed to the public through journalists."

However, in a move to defuse the row, Judge Mangan yesterday clarified his earlier directive to court staff. He said that reporters will continue to be able to access information on court documents with court staff telling them verbally a defendant's name, age, address, the charge and the decision of the court.

He said reporters will not be able to have sight of the documents because of his practice of inserting handwritten notes about cases on charge sheets and summonses.

"I would be very concerned, say for example, a case that has been adjourned to a future date and a reporter would see my handwritten notes on the document on how I intend to deal with the case. What I have proposed will avoid this happening, but also ensure that reporters continue to have full access to cases that come before the court."

Judge Mangan said if reporters wished to access information beyond the charge, name, age and address of the defendant, or decision of the court, an application would have to be made to him.

In response Mr Dooley said the comments "merely serve to underline the need for a uniform system of access to court information throughout the country.

"The issue was discussed at the NUJ's Irish executive council meeting on Friday where concern was expressed over Judge Mangan's move, and difficulties in accessing court information was identified as a particular problem by the regional press."

He said IEC chairman Barry McCall told the meeting that without access to accurate information from courts there is an increased risk of journalists making a mistake.

Mr Dooley said yesterday he was still unhappy about the move. "If he is putting down private thoughts on cases, he should do it on other notebooks rather than court documents."

A Courts Service protocol on the issue states: "The guidelines make it clear that staff can make available names, addresses and dates of birth of defendants, the charges faced and the decision of the court, which in any event is delivered in open court. They are also permitted to circulate court lists."