Defamation actions linked to witness protection programme to be heard in private

The Garda Commissioner has secured a “unique” order for a hearing behind closed doors of civil actions by two people alleging defamation in Sunday World articles related to the State’s Witness Protection Programme.

The actions will proceed later this year before a High Court judge and jury with the public and media excluded. Only the verdict can be published.

The commissioner argued the in camera order was necessary to safguard the programme, guard against a possible risk to life to those engaged with it, and for public safety and security interests.

The plaintiffs supported a private hearing but the Sunday World opposed it, arguing only criminal trials might be heard in private.

The President of the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice Sean Ryan, giving the three judge court’s judgement, ruled the “exceptional” and “unique” order was necessary because constitutional rights and interests vital to the State are at stake, including the rights to life, State security, public safety and international co-operation “to combat crime of the most serious kind”.

The order was also necessary given the commissioner’s functions under the Official Secrets Act and to protect the plaintiffs rights to a fair trial, he held.

A key issue concerned the interpretation of the 1998 Supreme Court decision in Irish Times Ltd & Ors v Ireland & Ors, which permitted a criminal trial to be heard in private.

Mr Justice Ryan ruled the exceptional jurisdiction identified in that case to direct an in camera trial was not restricted to criminal proceedings. The courts have jurisdiction to also direct a private hearing in civil cases but the circumstances “must be extreme and rare indeed and the evidence cogent”, he said.

In the “extraordinary” circumstances here, the commissioner had surmounted the “very high threshold” for a private hearing and established “an existential threat generally” and in particular to a “practically unique catalogue of public and individual Constitutional rights and interests”.

© The Irish Times

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