I will never forget the first day I stood in a court of law in this country. I am pleased to say it was just a district court and I was there not by way of a summons or a charge to be met. I was there by way of an order from my first news editor to go and cover the court as a journalist and bring back stories for the next edition of the local newspaper. It was a somewhat daunting mission for a young cub reporter to be given in his first year in the job, but I was ready for the task.
The assignment was put on my desk on a Wednesday afternoon and the instruction was straightforward. My boss – the late Eugene McGee – was a native of north Longford on the Cavan border and had decided that the proceedings of the local court in the town of Arva, just a few miles away, should be reported upon in the next edition of the Longford Leader. The newspaper had a huge cross-border readership in Cavan, Leitrim and beyond.
The exotic setting for me the next day was to be the somewhat dated environs of St Patrick’s community hall in Arva, which was being used at the time as a makeshift venue for the local court. The presiding judge was to be the learned Donal McArdle.
The first thing to be said about Arva District Court that day is that there was no need for fear or loathing on behalf of anyone present – accused or otherwise – because the presiding judge was just about the most caring man I had ever come across on the bench of a court in this country – and an absolute gentleman too.
Donal McArdle was a native of Dundalk, appointed as a judge by his old college friend, Progressive Democrats party leader Dessie O’Malley. McArdle’s common sense and good humour particularly suited the district court, where everyone agreed he had the ability to recognise the ‘chancers’ and the genuine people in the blink of an eye. Every week he headed up the highways and byways, boreens and back lanes of provincial Ireland to meet the local petty criminals and deal with misdemeanours. It was a pretty thankless task, but one that he never seemed to fail to enjoy. By the time I had got myself seated in the broad and lonely press benches of Arva District Court on that first court day, he was already on stage and ‘performing’ – and he seemed to be enjoying it very much too.
The run of the mill business for the district courts in those days was bald tyres, tax-less cars and an odd row over a right of way between local farmers. True enough, every other month an odd yarn with a bit more intrigue, conspiracy or even assault would come before the judge, but for the most part we lived on a staple diet of after-hours prosecutions (remember them?) in local pubs, applications for late liquor and dance licences to cover the weekend of Arva Show, and perhaps the odd bit of sheep stealing or cattle rustling.
I covered Arva District Court for about two years and often remarked to my boss Eugene McGee that I was not sure if in fact it was really worth covering at all. It seemed to me the same people came back again and again into my notebook for pretty much the same misdemeanours month after month. But McGee was having none of it and on one occasion lectured me firmly as to why we were really there.
“Read your Constitution” was his opening salvo. He reminded me of the old adage, ‘justice must not only be done but be seen to be done’. He was right too. Later, I searched a copy of the blue book (otherwise known as the Constitution) and read it for myself (this was before the arrival of Google into our lives): ‘Article 34.1 of the Constitution of Ireland, 1937 provides that justice shall be administered in public, save ‘in special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law’’.
The second reason given by McGee for our presence in the court was simply based on good business and good newspaper sales techniques. “Everyone and anyone in Arva and north Longford wants to read about their neighbours’ sins” he said firmly. “They will never admit it in public, but that’s what country folk do – talk TO their neighbours half of the week and then talk ABOUT them for the other half. We will help them do so with a page of Arva court next week that will sell out the Leader in Arva in no time!”
Over the years, the courts have changed very much from what I witnessed on that day in Arva, but those two principles haven’t. The urgent necessity to publicly report criminal prosecutions at all levels is continuously emphasised by senior Gardai and the Minister for Justice, but I have to say the days of the court reporter now appear to be numbered in many parts of the country.
My experience in recent years is that the reporting of criminal prosecutions of people in the circuit court in the midlands is now pretty much a thing of the past in many areas (with the exception of Roscommon and Longford). Month after month now, dozens of cases come before the court and are dealt with by way of monetary penalties, custodial sentences or suspended periods of incarceration – but not a word appears in the local paper or on local radio, because there are no court reporters present. I for one feel this is not a good development.
I have to say that of course I understand why this has happened. The modern-day newsrooms in local papers are understaffed and under-resourced in many cases. The electronic media is making life extremely difficult for the provincial press. Few editors can afford to assign a reporter to sit in a court for 8 or 10 hours a day anymore…for a return that just might include an adjourned verdict or a legal argument that in any event cannot be reported on. Still, for me there is a resounding and critically important reason why our local court proceedings should be reported. Simply put, that goes back to the Constitution and the absolute necessity for the breaking of law not just to be dealt with by the guards and the civil authorities, but for those breaches to be seen in the local media by everyone else in the community for what they are. This would be the sort of preventative medicine that any good law-maker or Garda would surely approve of.
There is an easy way to rectify the situation. The Government already has a new apprenticeship scheme in place to increase skills in the workforce. What would be wrong with signing up a half a dozen young apprentices in every county in Ireland to learn to become court reporters – to carry out the important duties of the district and circuit court proceedings every week?
Not only would they be learning the tools of the trade, we would be creating a few jobs too in an initiative that would help justice being SEEN to be done in every county in Ireland – the way it should be.
We need court reporters for transparency too, so let’s go back and subsidise the jobs and put them in place again. The country needs them.