Legal review set to address social media threat to trials

The State’s legal advisory body is expected to make recommendations in relation citizen journalists and campaigners posting commentary on social media questioning the evidence of witnesses during trials in a forthcoming review of the law on contempt of court.

The Law Reform Commission’s review, which started last year, is also expected to find that the right to a fair trial, including the right to be judged on the evidence presented in court, trumps the right of freedom of expression, cited by campaigners and defendants.

Last Friday, retiring chief justice Susan Denham sent out a discussion paper to the presidents of the various courts on dealing with the threat posed by social media, saying the “fundamental” right to a fair trial needed to be protected.

The Department of Justice told the Irish Examiner that it was starting its own review in the autumn and that this would bring together the recommendations of both the judicial review and the LRC and implement whatever urgent legal changes that were necessary “as quickly as possible”.

The LRC is set to publish its report by year’s end.

The report will address the actions of citizen journalists and campaigners who post interviews and commentary online during trials, particularly where they question the evidence of witnesses.

The LRC is also expected to underline the supremacy of the right to a fair trial over the right of freedom of expression, where the latter interferes with the former.

Another key issue is whether a law needs to be introduced to allow courts to order that material be removed from an internet site.

The review is examining if contempt of court should be put on a statutory basis.

Judge Denham said last week: “Concerns over social media are widespread and real. There are genuine concerns over the dissemination of false claims.”

Last Friday, Judge Melanie Greally said contempt of court laws were “hopelessly inadequate” in curbing social media comment.

Judge Greally, who is hearing a forthcoming trial in relation to the Jobstown case and who presided over the previous trial, said a social media comment could have collapsed the last trial if it had not been quickly removed.

She proposed preventing defendants from making any comment on social media intended to influence the forthcoming trial — but lawyers for some of the accused said this would be a misuse of power and strike at the constitutional right of freedom of expression.

Judge Greally did not pursue the proposal and relied instead on bail conditions.