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Inaccurate media reports are a 'disservice' to the public, says leading judge

Published 23/11/2015

A judge has criticised recent misleading reports on the drink drive prosecution rates
A judge has criticised recent misleading reports on the drink drive prosecution rates

A judge has warned inaccurate media reports do a disservice to the public interest and debate.

After statistics refuted claims of only a 40% conviction rate for drink-driving cases, District Court President Rosemary Horgan said it was very concerning if the justice system is undermined by unbalanced reporting or editorial comment.

The Courts Service was last month forced to release figures on successful prosecutions for the road traffic offence which more than doubled the initially reported rate.

"The media can influence what the public think as well as reflecting public opinion," Judge Horgan said.

"It is very concerning therefore if public confidence in the justice system is undermined through any inaccurate or unbalanced reporting or editorial comment.

"The public is entitled to expect high professional standards from journalists and editors.

"Inaccurate, incorrect, unbalanced, and incomplete reports of either the facts of an individual case, or a statistical trend in a particular category of cases, is both a disservice to public interest and to public debate."

The judge raised the issue at a retirement sitting for Judge William Early in the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin.

Last month, Government figures to Independent TD Tommy Broughan appeared to show only 40% of drink-driving cases between Jan 2013 and May of this year resulted in convictions.

The comparison was drawn with the UK where the conviction rate is 97%.

While questions were raised over how the figures could vary so greatly, concerns were also raised that the results were incomplete, with the Courts Service later releasing its data on completed prosecutions, which put the rate at between 85-88%.

Judge Horgan praised the work of the media before warning over the importance of accuracy.

"The media perform an essential and valuable service in our democracy by reporting on the court's decisions and the Justice System to the wider public," she said.

"This role carries with it a heavy responsibility to ensure accuracy and fairness."

Judge Early was also praised for epitomising "all the best qualities of a judge of a summary court of first instance".

Judge Horgan said he was known for his communication skills and an understanding of how a judicial decision will affect the people appearing before the court.

"Judge Early has consistently demonstrated the very best judicial traits of patience, open-mindedness, courtesy, tact, courage, punctuality, firmness, understanding, compassion, humility and common sense in all of his interactions with the court's many stakeholders," she said.

Mr Broughan accused the President of the District Court of being disrespectful to elected politicians and road safety groups such as Parc, Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care on the roads.

"While the independence of the Courts is of utmost importance, transparent reporting of data and statistics does not interfere with this independence and must be demanded by (Transport Minister Paschal) Donohoe and (Justice Minister Frances) Fitzgerald," he said.

"The real 'disservice' to the public here is the fact that we cannot rely on stats provided to publicly elected reps by the Courts Service."

Mr Broughan said he had sought further statistics from Government on convictions for road traffic offences and penalty points.

He claimed politicians and campaigners were being made to "jump through hoops" to find out information "that should be available in a timely and transparent way".

He said statistics relating to the Courts Service were "notoriously difficult to come by" and said he often has to wait months for information.

Mr Broughan explained that the initial drink-driving conviction analysis was based on figures provided to him that out of 20,830 cases listed 8,391 were convicted.

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