Judge's comments on media criticised by legal expert

 

JUDGES SHOULD not get into controversy with parts of civil society that might appear as litigants in the courts, according to a leading expert in criminal law.

Prof Finbarr McAuley, Jean Monnet Professor of European Criminal Justice in UCD and a member of the Law Reform Commission, was responding to criticism by Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman over the media's coverage of the courts.

"Adrian Hardiman is a personal friend and a judge I admire. He has made a number of important rulings, especially on the rights of defendants," Prof McAuley said.

"In relation to judges getting into controversy, I think that's wrong. It is not sensible for judges to get into controversy with parts of civil society that might appear as litigants in the courts. It's fine for judges to make statements about technical aspects of the law. But making controversial statements is unwise," he said.

On the issue of media coverage, Prof McAuley said on the whole the media do a "pretty good job". "To suggest large-scale incompetence on the part of the media is excessive. But I would hope the media would not be too thin-skinned on this," he said.

He added: "Judge Hardiman has had the courage to make controversial decisions and has received a lot of criticism for them. There is a danger he is seen as reacting to chat, which compounds the problem. Judges should make controversial decisions and then remain schtum."

Mr Justice Hardiman criticised the media at a Law Society function last weekend for its "inadequate and uninformative" coverage of the courts.

He also adapted the lyrics of a song from the musical Oklahoma!- "the farmer and the cowman [sic] should be friends" - by referring to female court reporters on a number of occasions as "cowgirls".

Michael O'Higgins, senior counsel and chairman of the Irish Criminal Bar Association, said he broadly supported Mr Justice Hardiman's comments and felt journalists were "being a bit oversensitive." He told RTÉ's Drivetimethat while there was factual reporting of court cases, there was little reflection on actual judgments. "The might deliver up tasty morsels, but it's not really a substitute for hard and close analysis of a lengthy judgment. It's not the individual fault of the journalist, it's the system and the manner in which news is gathered and disseminated."

However, Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists Seamus Dooley said Mr Justice Hardiman's comments were ill-informed. He also called on the judge to apologise for what he said was the sexist use of the term "cowgirl". Speaking on the same programme, Mary Carolan of The Irish Timessaid the judge's comments were "unwarranted and unfair" and tarred all media reporting with the same brush.