A “deeply concerning” culture of secrecy in the courtroom is putting freedom of the press and open justice under threat, newspaper bosses have warned.
Managing editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Paul Connolly, told HTFP that journalists and others in Northern Ireland were becoming increasing worried about media freedom in the country.
His comments came after Londonderry Judge Barney McElholm imposed anonymity orders on three defendants charged with non-drugs related offences – a move the paper has labelled an “unprecedented step”.
Bel Tel editor Mike Gilson also wrote an opinion piece criticising the district judge’s decision to grant the anonymity order, claiming it could set a “dangerous precedent”.
Paul said: “There is an increasing tendency amongst some members of the judiciary to impose reporting restrictions that would not be entertained in the rest of the UK.
“I would urge the Lord Chief Justice in the short term to issue clear guidance to judges and magistrates on this matter. Longer term, there is a presumption towards secrecy within the Northern Ireland legal system that needs to be addressed.
“As the legal systems of England, Wales and Scotland embrace the principles of transparency and open justice, Northern Ireland is going backwards.
“The reason why is a bit of mystery – but it is deeply concerning.”
In the past, Judge McElholm has granted anonymity to defendants in drugs cases due to a potential danger to their lives after vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs killed a Londonderry man it claimed was involved in the drugs trade.
But in this case, none of the men were accused of anything to do with drugs.
One of the trio was charged with obstructing a police officer, while a second was charged with perverting the course of justice by falsely identifying someone to the police.
The third was charged with perverting the course of justice by falsely claiming he was someone who had been asked to produce their driving documents.
Judge McElholm claimed publicity could bring them to the attention of “dangerous elements” who might harm them.
In his Editor’s Viewpoint column on the matter, Mike warned it could open the floodgates for anonymity requests from defence lawyers in future.
“This could be a dangerous precedent,” Mike wrote.
“This newspaper feels that the question of danger to defendants could be used by virtually every defence lawyer hoping to keep their clients’ names out of the public domain.
“There must be compelling evidence of likely threat before such anonymity can be granted.
“The identities of people appearing in court are often well known in their immediate localities, whether they are publicly named or not.”
He said during the worst of the Troubles, anonymity was rarely granted to defendants even if their lives, and the lives of their immediate relatives, were under threat from opposing groups.
“Why should there be greater threats against individuals in today’s society?” he added.
“The old maxim that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done has served the legal system well for a very long time and must be jealously guarded.”