- Government has agreed to an independent review of the law in respect of access to the phone records of journalists
- Former Chief Justice, Mr. Justice John Murray has agreed to carry out the review and is aware of the need to complete it as soon as possible
19th January, 2016
A free press plays a pre-eminent role in any democratic society in fostering full, free and informed debate on all issues of public concern. It is, therefore, of fundamental importance in any healthy democracy that journalists should be able to carry out their legitimate work unhindered.
Concerns have been expressed over recent days about the question of access to the telephone records of journalists in the context of a criminal investigation being carried out by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
As Minister, I have no role in the process of requesting or authorising access to telephone records under the legislation nor do I receive information relating to specific requests made in the course of investigations. That would simply not be appropriate in the context of the independent functions of bodies such as GSOC.
There have been inaccurate suggestions that the law at issue stems from changes which were made last year: instead these powers derive from the Communications (Data Retention) Act 2011.
However, general issues of genuine concern have been raised as to the balance in our law between the important freedom of journalists to pursue legitimate matters of public interest and the basic rights of persons not to have their personal information improperly disclosed. While bodies investigating crime need to have the appropriate statutory powers available to them to carry out their duties, we need to examine the balance in respect of entirely legitimate journalistic activity being carried out in the public interest.
This raises complex issues of fundamental importance and the Government has today agreed my proposal to establish an independent review of the law in respect of access to the phone records of journalists. This review will cover all bodies that can have access to records under the Data Retention Act, including GSOC, An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Defence Forces.
I am pleased that the former Chief Justice, Mr. Justice John Murray, who was also a former member of the European Court of Justice, has agreed to carry out the review and I anticipate that the review will be completed in three months.
The terms of reference of the review are:
‘To examine the legislative framework in respect of access by statutory bodies to communications data of journalists held by communications service providers, taking into account, the principle of protection of journalistic sources, the need for statutory bodies with investigative and/or prosecution powers to have access to data in order to prevent and detect serious crime, and current best international practice in this area.’
While fully respecting the independence of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, I was glad to meet this morning with the Chairperson of the Commission, Ms Justice Mary-Ellen Ring, a judge of the High Court. She has assured me of the clear and strict procedures in place in GSOC in respect of this area and, indeed, she emphasises that requests for access to telephone records are decided at the level of the Chairperson. I assured Ms Justice Ring that there is no question whatsoever of the review of the law in this area reflecting any lack of confidence in GSOC and that this review arises not from the facts of any particular case, rather the general concerns which have arisen about the overall balance of the law in this area.
While bodies investigating offences need to have the appropriate statutory powers available to them to carry out their duties, we need to examine the balance in respect of entirely legitimate journalistic activity being carried out in the public interest.
Note for Editors:
Biography of Mr. Justice John Murray:
Mr Justice John Murray was Attorney General of Ireland from August–December 1982 and again from 1987–1991. He served as a judge of the Court of Justice of the European Communities (Luxembourg) from 1991–1999. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1999 and served as Chief Justice from 2004–2011. Following his 7 year term of office as Chief Justice he was the senior ordinary judge on the Supreme Court until his retirement in June 2015. He is a Member of the Council of State and Deputy Chairman of the Advisory Panel of Experts on Candidates for election as Judge to the European Court of Human Rights. He is also a Bencher of the Honorable Society of the King's Inns.