Will less public justice mean more public suffering?

The Criminal Courts of Justice was the first major courts facility built in Ireland since the Four Courts in the late 1700s and, at a cost of €140 million, holds great promise for the contemporary administration of justice. A controversial consequence of the Court’s design is that accused persons are no longer led into court in public view, complicating the job of the court photographer.

It appears that the role of the media was not a significant factor in the design of the Courts. Abigail Rieley covered the Lillis trial and blogged about the facilities provided to journalists:

If you are a journalist however the new courts pose quite significant problems.  Once again the concept of designated seating for the media has been ignored and a single bench provided, if we’re lucky enough to get to it before someone else is sitting there. The new media rooms, which we had been promised such great things about, turned out to be two bunkers on the ground floor, next to the toilets.  Low ceilinged, with no windows whatsoever the new rooms are little more than boxes.

Difficulties with the facilities erupted into controversy during that trial when one witness was given extensive Garda co-operation to facilitate her arrival and departure from the Courts without being captured on film. It was suggested that the witness in question might not have given evidence but for the privacy provided. However, many pointed out that she was unlikely to be a crucial witness in the prosecution. Diarmuid Doyle notes the danger that the behaviour of the authorities in the Lillis trial may give rise to a hierarchy of witnesses (albeit this point appends what appears to be a misunderstanding of the argument that photography should be allowed to ensure the public administration of justice).

The restrictions on photographing accused and convicted persons appear to be spreading and the Courts Service has ruled out releasing mugshots. Paul Cullen quotes the Court of Criminal Appeal in the People (DPP) v. Davis [2001] 1 IR 146:

The dignity of the individual, and the perception that he is a participant in judicial proceedings with specific rights, and on a footing of equality with other participants, is inconsistent with his appearing there chained, manacled, handcuffed and chained, or otherwise manifestly restrained.

But what of a person found guilty of a crime? Rieley continued her criticism of the Courts in the Evening Herald under the provocative headline: “Why do the authorities care more about the privacy of criminals than the public’s right to know?“:

The media facilities have the feeling of a being a grudging after-thought, a sop to a group of pests who are barely tolerated at the best of times. This goes to the heart of the Courts Services’ attitude towards the press. The idea that the media are public representatives seems to be a foreign concept. Justice has to be carried out in public, as laid down in Article 34.1 of the Constitution and it’s through journalists that this happens in the main.

A further concern is that, with no accused person to photograph, the lens will be turned on someone else. A small example of this appeared on the Nine News on 19 February, when a remarkably brave victim of rape waived the anonymity available to victims of sexual assault and made a statement to the media.

The convicted offender could not be filmed, so the report relied on file footage and newspaper photographs. The victim made her statement direct to camera and yet this was, apparently, not enough. She was pursued to the door of a waiting car and filmed until it drove away.

Endnote:

  • The Irish Times, on the opening of the Courts, said that “[p]eople charged with criminal offences will no longer be brought to court handcuffed and in public view”. The change was widely reported as such though it should be noted that female prisoners, even when accused of serious and violent crime, are rarely handcuffed when being led into jail. John Waters has written about the sexism inherent in this practice.
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