The Courts Service has openly contradicted An Garda Síochána's declaration that journalists were barred from a court sitting in Waterford earlier this month on the orders of a district justice.
Former Fianna Fáil election candidate Kieran Hartley appeared before Judge Brian O'Shea at Dungarvan District Court on October 13th on a Section 6 public order charge for allegedly committing an offence against a family member of a local garda.
Journalists Eoghan Dalton and Christy Parker were barred for more than three hours from entering the court chamber by two gardaí, who said they had been told the judge had directed that no press be allowed in.
The decision to bar the press – the second time that this has happened to a court hearing where Judge O’Shea was sitting following an incident at a Dublin hearing in 2017 – has now been raised with Garda management.
During exchanges with the reporters, who questioned the decision, one garda said “no one is allowed in this morning”, and while they “honestly” did not “know any details of it” they had been “directed by the court to not allow anyone into it”.
The Garda Press Office later that day insisted “the presiding judge had directed that the court be cleared of persons not involved in the case” as a “voir dire” was in operation.
A voir dire normally occurs when a judge seeks to determine an issue in the course of a trial rather than in advance of one, and very rarely applies at District Court level. Journalists may witness proceedings but not report the details.
Questioned later, however, the press office said: “The court garda cleared the court as requested by the judge”, and that “it is understood that members of the media who so arrived after that point were inadvertently prevented from accessing the courtroom”.
The Courts Service on Friday said: “At no stage did Judge O’Shea or Courts Service officials issue a direction that the case should be held otherwise than in public”.
“The court sitting at Dungarvan District Court on Wednesday, October 13th, was a public hearing. It involved the hearing of certain arguments in a case, before the ‘substantive’ matter might be heard at another time,” the spokesman said.
“In the absence of an order the law requires that the proceedings take place in public: we are committed to that principle. The alleged actions of gardaí in not allowing access to some media is a matter for Garda management.
“These issues have been raised with Garda management,” said the Courts Service, which is understood to have checked its own records carefully ahead of making its public statement.
When the case came to court on September 22nd, solicitor Paddy Gordon, acting for defence solicitor Frank Buttimer, questioned the legitimacy of statements presented by An Garda Síochána. Mr Gordon claimed they were "not our statements and we want them examined forensically".
Deferring the matter to the October 13th sitting of Dungarvan District Court, Judge O'Shea instructed that investigating Garda Tom Daly be present, along with his notebook and all original statements.
The judge also asked that Tramore District Superintendent Paul O'Driscoll attend the hearing, which would commence at 10am prior to the main court business.
Mr Hartley unsuccessfully contested the 2014 European elections as Fianna Fáil's Ireland South candidate. He resigned from the party acrimoniously in 2018 following his criticism of its handling of matters related to convicted paedophile Bill Kenneally, whose cousin Brendan was a former Fianna Fáil junior minister.
Judge O’Shea did not issue a written verdict on the present case against Mr Hartley, but it is understood the Garda testaments will stand as presented when it is heard.
Mr Buttimer said he was “not in a position to comment at present”.
Sinn Féin's justice spokesman Martin Kenny said it was "highly unusual" and that he would be writing to Garda headquarters seeking an explanation. "Justice has to be seen to be done as well as being done, and I find it quite alarming that we'd be in this situation."