New-Court-House.3 Photo by Michael Stamp

Today the Central Criminal Court sat for the first time in the new Criminal Courts of Justice Complex at Parkgate Street in Dublin.  The €140 million complex is the largest major court development since the Four Courts were built in the 18th Century.

It’s a massive complex – 23,000 square feet which house 22 courts and 450 rooms.  In January, all criminal matters will be dealt with there – the Central, Circuit, District and Special criminal courts will all move in, leaving the Four Courts the preserve of civil matters.

It’s an impressive building – large, airy and imposing.  There are state of the art jury facilities, cells and victim support quarters.  Today in Court 6 photographers and cameramen were allowed in to mark the historic moment when Mr Justice Paul Carney took his seat to preside over the first list.

There were a couple of initial teething problems.  As the first trial got underway the witnesses had to affirm as they were sworn in because no one had thought to bring a Bible into the new complex.  There were delays as prisoners were brought up from the cells but matters by and large continued without a major hitch.

If you are a journalist however the new courts pose quite significant problems.  Once again the concept of designated seating for the media has been ignored and a single bench provided, if we’re lucky enough to get to it before someone else is sitting there.

The new media rooms, which we had been promised such great things about, turned out to be two bunkers on the ground floor, next to the toilets.  Low ceilinged, with no windows whatsoever the new rooms are little more than boxes.

While other offices are equipped with sinks and ample space for kettles and other necessities of office life, the press rooms have no such facilities.  The one provided for print, radio and photographers has space for a mere ten people (little use in a high profile trial which can easily attract 40 or 50 journalists on any one day).  There are only plug sockets on one side of the room.  Even if your battery holds up there’s no reception for phones or 3G modems.  One of the more venerable reporters on the scene commented that facilities had been better for the press in the 1950s.

The TV journalists fare little better.  RTE  and TV3 will have to share a room only slightly larger than the box shared by print reporters, radio and photographers.  Hardly ideal when a deadline is approaching for everyone.

There was a great feeling of anger and disappointment from the press benches today.  We had been promised the sun, moon and stars with the new facilities but now found ourselves longing for the old media room in the Four Courts.  We might get locked out once the office staff go home at 4.30 (a major problem if you’re waiting for a jury until 7 or so) but they actually have windows and over the years people have brought in a kettle, microwave etc.  It’s quite civilised.  It’s even bigger than the space we’ve been given now.

The most depressing thing about the paltry facilities is that they don’t really come as a surprise.  the Irish Courts Service tends to tolerate journalists at best.  We’re seen as an inconvenience, a drain on resources.  The idea that we are representatives of the public and our presence ensures that justice is carried out in public – as laid down in Article 34.1 of the Irish Constitution – is simply not considered.  In the case of certain trials, like rape, where the general public are banned from the court, we’re the only public representatives allowed in. 

In Irish courts the press frequently have to argue their right to attend and the grudging facilities provided in the new courts are symptomatic.  We don’t have automatic rights to see certain court documents but rely instead on the kindness of court staff and barristers.

While there are court staff who will bend over backwards to help the press they are in the minority.  Sadly the attitude that we are little more than vermin seems to be spreading and matters will only get worse as familiar faces retire and are replaced with new blood.

Whatever you might think of the individual media outlets in Ireland it’s a sad state of affairs when a country’s media are disregarded to this extent.  Court stories have always made up a large part of the news since the earliest days of the media and it’s right and proper that they do.  We don’t simply follow trials to pick over the lurid details of the latest high profile murders.  Court stories also cover miscarriages of justice, shine a light on injustices, show the failings of the state – and the rest. 

In a country where the Taoiseach will say publically that Freedom of Information is a waste of resources and so many of those in power have shown utter disregard for the good of the electorate there needs to be greater transparency not less.  The press weren’t consulted on what facilities were needed in the new courts and the attitude is that we should make do with crumbs.  Ultimately though this isn’t to do with the lack of a view from the press room, it’s to do with something far more fundamental.  I’m writing this from a personal perspective but this stuff is important and these attitudes shouldn’t be allowed to continue.