Belfast Telegraph

Olivia O'Kane: This court hearing and its findings are of the highest possible public interest

By Olivia O'Kane

Throughout the course of this trial, the media carefully considered the law and its obligation to inform the public.

The media is the public's eyes and ears; it is our public watchdog and, among their other responsibilities, is that to observe and report on criminal proceedings.

Gone are the days that our courtrooms are filled to the rafters by the public.

Without the media reporting what goes on in court and reporting about how our criminal justice process is administered, the public would never know.

The principle of open justice requires that the administration of justice must be done - and be seen to be done - in public.

This safeguards objective impartiality, while publicity ensures that trials are properly conducted. It is a valuable check on the criminal process.

Full reporting of criminal trials also promotes public confidence in the administration of justice; it promotes the values of the rule of law and ensures the public fully understand the law they must respect.

Equally, any restriction on reporting is an interference with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the Press's right to freedom of expression, but also the public's right to receive information.

On this basis, the media, under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Editors' Liaison Group, applied to the court, claiming that any order to restrict reporting about any aspect of the proceedings, or for any period of time, should be rescinded.

Courts have powers to restrict coverage of certain aspects of trials, or all of the trial, including the ability to postpone media reporting for a defined time.

Prior to the trial starting, the media launched various challenges against any restriction of reporting the proceedings.

The result of those legal challenges was that it could report about these court proceedings after it concluded yesterday.

This enabled the media to fully inform the public about the criminal process as a whole, about what happened in court and what the case was about.

The media's legal challenge was in the pursuit of open justice, to protect the public's right to know, to understand and to hear what goes on in our courts.

Through the eyes and ears of the media, the public can be fully informed as to the operation of the criminal justice system and to promote understanding about the operation of the rule of law. The importance of the principle of open justice - and of the media's right to report criminal proceedings - cannot be underestimated in any modern democracy.

In one case, Lord Steyn remarked that:

"A criminal trial is a public event. The principle of open justice puts, as has often been said, the judge and all who participate in the trial under intense scrutiny. The glare of contemporaneous publicity ensures that trials are properly conducted. It is a valuable check on the criminal process. Moreover, the public interest may be as much involved in the circumstances of a remarkable acquittal as in a surprising conviction. Informed public debate is necessary about all such matters. Full, contemporaneous reporting of criminal trials in progress promotes public confidence in the administration of justice. It promotes the values of the rule of law."

The family of Jean McConville have been seeking truth and justice for over 50 years. There can be no question that any court hearing inquiring into the circumstances of Jean McConville's death is of the highest possible public interest, including the court's findings that have followed in this trial in delivering the not guilty verdict.

  • Olivia O'Kane is a partner and head of media and entertainments at Belfast law firm Carson McDowell. She is legal adviser to the Northern Ireland Editors' Liaison Group, which includes the Belfast Telegraph, Irish Independent, Irish Times, BBC Northern Ireland, UTV, RTE, Press Association, Mirror Group Newspapers and the Irish News

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