• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

Legal work and journalism are both sociable activities, dependent on personal interaction. Nobody was ready for the changes Covid-19 necessitated.

Jan 3, 2021

It took months to suppress the urge to stand up every time Dr Tony Holohan and his fellow NPHET doctors entered and left the large briefing room in the Department of Health.
As cases of Covid-19 rose and the normal business of life, including legal proceedings, was suspended, I was assigned to join the team of reporters covering the unfolding crisis.
But 14 years of having to stand whenever a judge entered or left a court room proved to be a hard habit to break.
When I think back on life before the pandemic took hold, the courts and the legal world formed a large part of it.
The last “normal” event I attended, was a dinner in the Kings Inns in Dublin, on 5 March, hosted by the Bar of Ireland to mark International Women’s Day. 
A stunning portrait of Ms Justice Mary Laffoy by young artist, Hetty Lawlor, was unveiled as we mixed and mingled and chatted happily. 
The portrait of Ms J Mary Laffoy unveiled at a dinner celebrating women in law for #iwd2020 at the king’s inns. Painted by 20 year old Hetty Lawlor. @TheBarofIrelandpic.twitter.com/5VNgoHYz3d
— Órla O’Donnell (@Orlaodo) March 5, 2020
Just one week later, I was rushing over to the school gates to collect my young children, as schools shut down unexpectedly.
At around the time of that dinner, I also remember sitting in the Central Criminal Court with fellow reporter, Helen Bruce, semi-anxiously discussing the strange illness in China we were hearing about. 
“Ah, it’s only a flu,” we reassured each other. As usual we were all crammed together on the press bench in a packed courtroom, surrounded by gardaí, bereaved families, and busy lawyers.
The next time I saw my colleague was many months later at a sentencing hearing. 
This time we were spaced out across the courtroom, wearing masks, watching proceedings on a screen as they were streamed from an adjoining room.
Outside the courtroom, the little café where you could perch on a stool with your coffee and chat to barristers, gardaí, prison officers or solicitors about the latest high profile case or juicy nugget of legal gossip was taped off to prevent people congregating. 
Legal work and journalism are both sociable activities, dependent on personal interaction. No one was used to operating in this way.
The need to limit the numbers of people in the courtrooms meant that sometimes barristers, their clients, investigating gardaí and others had no choice but to gather in numbers in the corridors outside, something that caused anxiety to many.
In October, the President of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, felt the need to send strongly worded letters to the Bar Council, which represents barristers, and the Law Society, which represents solicitors, criticising practitioners for not complying with public health regulations.
The judge said she had decided to walk through the round hall and corridors of the Four Courts building to see what was happening for herself.  And she said she had seen “on almost every occasion”, practitioners talking in very close proximity to each other.
In one area, she said there were “hordes of people” in scenes that could have created a public scandal if photographs had been taken and published.
Many lawyers pointed out that it was difficult to negotiate and settle sensitive cases with clients and opposing legal teams while remaining socially distanced. 
Others welcomed the intervention, saying they had not felt safe.
Of course, some court business moved online and hearings were held remotely. 
Working remotely as a legal reporter, while homeschooling children, was a new and not particularly pleasant experience. 
Watching a Court of Appeal hearing on a mobile phone, knowing that one accidental click of the “unmute” button could lead to some of the most senior judges in the land listening to you shout at your children to “be quiet!” was unnerving.
Lawyers I spoke to were divided about the efficacy of these remote hearings. 
They spoke about the difficulty of “reading” a judge remotely – not being able to gauge when a particular point being argued was not “landing” and not knowing when to move on. 
They missed the cut and thrust of arguing a case in front of a judge – the verbal toing and froing is much more difficult to replicate on a Zoom call.
The long-flagged need to upgrade the IT systems in the courts meant the legal system was not as prepared for remote working as it would like to have been. 
Although the Courts Service says Covid-19 has had a “modernising effect”, piloting new digital ways of working, which were meant to be part of a more long term plan. 
It says 2,100 virtual court hearings took place between April and December and there were four times the number of video calls from courts to prisons between March and November.
Some lawyers said remote hearings lasted longer and were more difficult to prepare for.
Others took a more pragmatic approach – getting on with it, even while acknowledging it was not exactly the kind of work they enjoyed. 
Those starting or about to start their careers as barristers were among the worst affected. 
Young barristers normally “devil” with an experienced barrister for two years. 
This involves following their “master” around, looking up cases, sitting in on trials, occasionally moving motions themselves. 
It gives them invaluable, if unpaid, experience in the courts but these opportunities have not been available in the same way this year.
Walking around the Four Courts as remote hearings became more prevalent was sometimes an eerie experience – some corridors were almost deserted. 
And even eminent barristers could be seen wandering around aimlessly, frustrated by the forced hiatus.
The events of August and September, however, gave lawyers something new to focus on. 
It emerged newly-appointed Supreme Court judge Seamus Woulfe had been one of those attending  an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden in mid August as public health restrictions were being tightened.
While on holiday in Donegal in August, I received news that the Supreme Court would be issuing a statement on the matter – something that had never previously happened. 
This was the beginning of an unprecedented public airing of a major disagreement within the court.
Every few days brought a new turn in what became an extraordinary legal controversy. 
Lawyers themselves were divided, with some vehemently insisting that a judge should never attend such an event, and others claiming Judge Woulfe was the subject of a witch hunt and should not be hounded out of office in such circumstances.
Former Chief Justice Susan Denham’s review of events seemed to draw a line under the controversy.
Her conclusions, suggesting that Mr Justice Woulfe’s attendance at the dinner did not warrant resignation, were leaked several hours in advance. 
But the public release the following day by the judicial council of Judge Woulfe’s full discussion with Ms Justice Denham fanned the flames of a fire that lasted for weeks.
Meetings between Judge Woulfe and the Chief Justice were postponed and rescheduled. Rumours abounded in the law library and statements from the Supreme Court became regular occurrences.
The controversy focused attention, not for the first time, on the way in which judges are appointed. 
This time the spotlight was harder to shift as opposition parties zeroed in on Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
The year ended with an announcement by the minister that a new bill to reform judicial appointments would be drafted.
Despite the high emotions and seemingly unsurmountable difficulties caused by the controversy and in particular the way in which it was dealt with, it seems as if Judge Woulfe will take his place on the court in February after a three-month sanction suggested by the court is completed. 
He is expected to deal with applications for leave to appeal, with his colleagues.
As restrictions are tightened again, it remains to be seen how the courts will operate over the coming weeks when the new legal term begins on 11 January. 
Trials resumed in September as the Courts Service hired venues around the country to enable cases to go ahead in a safe way. 
For the first three months of the year, Croke Park will be used for criminal trials, in particular those trials expected to take a bit longer.
Delays caused by the impact of the pandemic will disproportionately affect victims of crime, anxiously waiting for trials to proceed, bereaved families, and those in custody, waiting to be tried.
Among the cases due to be dealt with during 2021 are the trial of four men accused of falsely imprisoning and assaulting Quinn Industrial Holdings director, Kevin Lunney, in the Special Criminal Court.
The Court of Appeal is due to give its judgment in the appeal by Patrick Quirke against his conviction for the murder of Bobby Ryan, a DJ known as “Mr Moonlight”. 
It’s also due to hear an appeal by a teenage boy against his conviction for the murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl.
The High Court is due to give its judgment on the test cases brought by pub owners over the refusal of FBD Insurance to pay out on business disruption caused by the pandemic early in the new year.
That judgment, like many others in the coming months, is likely to be delivered remotely, via an early morning email. 
When I am once again crammed into a press bench with my colleagues and friends, sighing as a judge reads out every syllable of a detailed judgment in a packed, stuffy courtroom, then I will finally believe normal life has returned.