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1 March 2001 Edition

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Special court under fire

The merits of trial by jury are being advocated on behalf of some unusual defendants. The BBC and the Daily Mail are facing contempt of court proceedings brought by Colm Murphy, who is facing charges before the non-jury Special Court relating to the Omagh bombing. The proceedings relate to the BBC's Panarma programme and a follow up article in the Daily News on the bombing.

Murphy is facing conspiracy to cause explosion charges and membership of an illegal organisation. His trial before the Special Court is due to commence on 9 October.

The Court ruled on Monday, 26 February, that Murphy had the necessary legal standing to bring the contempt proceedings, despite attempts by the DPP to frustrate his move. But the BBC and the Daily Mail are crying foul. Their Senior Counsel, Kevin Feeney, told the court the matter should be dealth with by the High Court. He said there were procedures available there which were not available in the Special Court. The case should be dealth with by a jury trial, according to Feeney.

Civil rights activists and republicans would agree. They have long called for the abolition of the non-jury Special Court. The court was initially establised in the early 1970s to gain convictions against those charged with political offences. However, the use of the non-jury court has been extended over the years to cover many non-political offences, as lawyers such as Mary Robinson predicted at the time of its establishment. The trials of those accused in connection with the killing of journalist Veronica Guerin before the non-jury court are the most high profile examples of this trend to date.

Ireland has been rapped on the knuckles by the United Nations because of the continuing use of these courts. The UN is concerned not so much by the absence of a jury, but rather over the arbitrary nature of the DPP's decisions to deny some defendants a jury but not others.

Senior members of the judiciary have expressed concern privately about some of the recent cases that have been held before the court, according to legal sources. The judges question why these cases would not have been suitable for a jury trial.

The DPP is not required to give reasons for his decision, still less establish prima facie grounds that a non-jury trial is required. Defendants seeking to judicially review the DPP's decisions in this regard have been told by the courts they must establish mal fides or bad faith on his part. It's a threshold which legal sources say is virtually impossible to meet.

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