Belfast Telegraph

Chief Justice calls for new rules on social media use in courtrooms

New rules are needed to deal with the use of social media during trials, the country's top judge has said.

Chief Justice Susan Denham is sending proposals to senior colleagues on guidelines on the use of Twitter, Facebook and other platforms in courtrooms.

"To date, it has been rare that courts in Ireland have had to use contempt of court laws to curb inaccurate and disruptive online communications about cases," the judge said.

"But it would be naive of us not to plan for the future in this regard."

The move comes on the back of the huge social media campaign which ran under #JobstownNotGuilty during the trial of six anti-water charge protesters.

Solidarity TD Paul Murphy and five others were found not guilty last month of the false imprisonment of then tanaiste and Labour leader Joan Burton during a demonstration in Tallaght in 2014.

The trial was marked by a massive online campaign including huge volumes of tweets in support of the defendants and criticisms of evidence.

The Chief Justice said she is sending a draft discussion paper on guidelines on the use of social media in the courts to the presidents of the court divisions this week.

The Courts Service is also being asked to engage with the media and legal professions on potential social media rules.

"The Courts do not operate in isolation. It is essential that decisions of the courts are communicated widely," Judge Denham said.

"The advent of social media a decade ago caused a revolution in how we communicate. It remains a great tool for the mass dissemination of information.

"However, concerns over social media are widespread and real.

"There are genuine concerns over the dissemination of false claims - which damage social debate, learning, and understanding."

The Chief Justice announced the plans at the launch of the Courts Service annual report.

She said several areas need to be addressed to protect the right to a fair trial in the era of social media.

"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 of same," the judge said.

The Chief Justice said the guidelines should focus on "who, when and what" of using social media in courtrooms.

She also said legal reform should be looked at to take cognisance of the new reality of instant communication.

Since 2011 in England and Wales if a member of the public wants to use live text-based communications, such as email and social media, in court they must make an application to a judge.

The rule does not apply to the media.

Last year guidelines were issued by the Lord Chief Justice's office in Northern Ireland that members of the public could not use live text-based communications, such as email and social media, from court.

On work in 2016 the Courts Service said there was a 15% increase in personal injury cases, up to 21,898, despite a parallel non-court process for claims.

It recorded 1,135 orders for possession - 47 in High Court, a 58% decrease on 2015, and 1,088 in Circuit Court, a 42% decrease on 2015.

The number of trials heard in the central Criminal Court has increased by 48% over two years, the Courts Service said.

It also noted 4,179 applications for divorce - a 3% decrease on 2015 - and 61 applications to dissolve partnerships in Circuit Court with two thirds of these made by women.

The report also said there had been 15,227 applications to District Court under domestic violence legislation - a 6% increase on 2015.

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