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Supreme Court hearings to be broadcast this year but extension to other courts ruled out

Chief Justice says Four Courts building is ‘beyond bursting point’ at event to mark centenary of independence of courts

The Supreme Court is to be broadcast from later this year, the Chief Justice has told a special commemorative event marking 100 years of independent Irish courts.

Legal arguments on issues of general public importance “should be as widely available to the public as possible”, Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell said, announcing a pilot broadcasting project will get under way in the coming months.

Because of the “very clear” distinction between Supreme Court appeals and other court hearings, particularly trial courts, he “did not anticipate, at this time, there would be, or should be” televising or streaming of other courts.

He was addressing a ceremony in the Four Courts on Tuesday commemorating the centenary of the Courts of Justice Act 1924 establishing the independent Irish courts system.

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Attended by senior judges from several European countries as well as India, Tanzania, Northern Ireland, and many serving and retired judges of the Irish courts, the event was also addressed by the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee and the presidents of the Court of Justice of the EU, Koen Lenaerts, and European Court of Human Rights, Síofra O’Leary.

Many attendees were guests at a commemorative reception later on Wednesday at Áras an Uachtaráin, hosted by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, after which the commemorative events concluded with a dinner at the King’s Inns.

In his address, the Chief Justice noted Ireland’s first chief justice, Hugh Kennedy, had described the establishment of independent Irish courts as “surely a precious moment, the moment when the silence of the Gael in the courts of law is broken. The moment when Irish courts are thrown open to administer justice according to laws made in Ireland by free Irish citizens”.

The changes marked a “radical evolution” directed towards improvement of the court system, “reflecting an egalitarian and reforming impulse”.

An observer from 1924 would be struck by the difference in the judiciary and legal professionals in the Irish courts today, “most notably in terms of gender balance”, and by developments including video-link and remote technology.

Stressing the importance of judicial independence, he said that does not mean the isolation of the judiciary and should not mean neglect, “even if benign”, of the court system.

“An independent court system needs to be reinforced and defended from challenges, whether violent and strident, or subtle and insidious,” he said.

A continued momentum in modernisation and increased judicial resources is needed, he said. Describing the Four Courts building as “beyond bursting point”, he said another suitable building is necessary to provide a modern administrative and judicial office system for the 21st century.

The Four Courts building “will always be an important symbol for the administration of justice in Ireland and in my view it should continue to be the place where the cases of most public importance are heard and decided”, he said. “But, just as in 1924, we have to make it work in a modern world.”

The Four Courts, in ruins by the 1921 bombardment of it marking the start of the Civil War, housed only a few judges and court staff when restored by 1932 but now has about 50 judges and support staff. “The working conditions and supports fall well below what would be taken for granted in even a medium-sized law firm.”

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times