NI Blog: Freedom to report on the courts is vital for a modern democracy

Olivia O'Kane
Olivia O’Kane

Olivia O’Kane, partner at Belfast firm Carson McDowell, writes on reporting restrictions in the recent high-profile rape trial.

When the criminal trial of Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Rory Harrison and Blane McIlroy ended in verdicts of not guilty, a number of reporting restrictions remained in force.

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

Following the acquittals in this case, the media carefully considered the law and its obligation to inform the public.

We concluded that any previous legal restrictions were no longer required and any perceived actual or real prejudice to the administration of justice had disappeared.

Everyone in this country who appears before the court to stand trial — whatever the charge — is entitled to, and must receive, a fair trial. That is a birthright.

But an equally precious principle is the freedom of the media to act as the eyes and ears of the public at large, and, among their other responsibilities, to observe and report on the criminal proceedings.

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, and publicity ensures that trials are properly conducted. It is a valuable check on the criminal process.

People do not fill the courts to the rafters like bygone days, but they must remain open to the public. For their part, the legal profession must do everything reasonably practical to enable them to have access to see what is going on, provided that it does not interfere with the trial process.

The media have always played a fundamental role in reporting what goes on in the courts, and, with the fall-off in public attendance, press reporting is even more important to open justice today.

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 of 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 applied to the court claiming that any order to restrict reporting about any aspect of the proceedings involving Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Rory Harrison and Blane McIlroy should now be rescinded.

This would enable the media to fully inform the public about the criminal process as a whole.

On Wednesday, after legal argument, the court agreed and those restrictions were lifted.

One of the impacts of this landmark ruling was to enable the public to be fully informed as to the operation of the criminal justice system and to promote understanding about the operation of the rule of law.

To deny a fair trial or to preclude the public from enjoying open justice and the media’s freedom of expression is crucially important to any modern democracy. One of the functions of open justice is to guard against repression. Carrying out justice in the light of day ensures that courts do not become, or be perceived to be, political courts like the 15th century Star Chambers.

The media’s legal challenge was upheld to ensure that justice was open and that the public were fully informed. The public have the right to understand and hear what goes on in our courts through the eyes and ears of the media.

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.

NI Blog: Freedom to report on the courts is vital for a modern democracy

  • Olivia O’Kane is a partner at Carson McDowell. View her profile here.
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