Supreme Court agrees to hear Garda Commissioner's appeal over seizure of journalist's phone

The case is part of an investigation into an alleged violent incident at a repossessed house in Falsk, Strokestown, Co. Roscommon
Supreme Court agrees to hear Garda Commissioner's appeal over seizure of journalist's phone

The Supreme Court said that the Commissioner, in seeking the appeal, had argued that the case concerns the interaction between criminal investigations utilising search warrants and "so-called journalistic privilege" asserted by Mr Corcoran. File picture

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal against a refusal to allow gardaí carry out a limited examination of a mobile phone seized from a journalist's home as part of an investigation into an alleged violent incident at a repossessed house in Co. Roscommon.

The court agreed to hear the appeal after holding that it raises important issues concerning the laws allowing the authorities obtain warrants to search journalists' homes, and access to their equipment and phones.

The High Court had ruled in 2020 that gardaí could access calls, texts, social media messages, photos, videos and other information on the phone, taken from Emmet Corcoran's property, in December 2018. That decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal (CoA) in April.

In a decision that has implications for the protection of journalistic sources and journalist privilege, the three-judge CoA of Ms Justice Caroline Costello, Brian Murray and Aileen Donnelly quashed the warrant​ that allowed the gardaí to search Mr Corcoran's home.

The CoA held that the warrant was flawed because it was not satisfied that the rights of a journalist to protect their sources was properly taken into account before it was issued.

The CoA also ruled that any material on the phone could not be used by the gardai as part of their investigation, and the phone must be returned to Mr Corcoran. The Garda Commissioner applied to have its appeal against the CoA's decision heard by the Supreme Court.

Important issues

In a written decision, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court agreed that it should determine the appeal on the grounds that it raises important issues of general public importance.

The panel consisting of the Chief Justice Donal O'Donnell, Mr Justice Peter Charleton, and Mr Justice Gerard Hogan said that the CoA, in what was a comprehensive judgment, had considered it possible to resolve the case without deciding the issue whether Mr Corcoran's claims to withhold documentation or information was valid.     

The CoA had decided the case on a narrower procedural ground.

The Supreme Court said that the Commissioner, in seeking the appeal, had argued that the case concerns the interaction between criminal investigations utilising search warrants and "so-called journalistic privilege" asserted by Mr Corcoran.

This matter, it was contended by the Commissioner, will apply to other criminal investigations, and specifically applications for search warrants before the District Court.

The issues raised in the case, namely the balance between the public interest and the investigation of serious crimes, and any claim of privilege, and the remedies available to courts to address these issues have not previously been addressed before the Supreme Court.

In these circumstances the Supreme Court held that the criteria had been met for it to hear and determine the Commissioner's appeal.

Case background

Mr Corcoran, represented by solicitor by Michael McDowell SC instructed by solicitor Donnacha Anhold, initiated judicial review proceedings shortly after the search of his home and seizure of his phone in April 2019 on foot of a search warrant issued by a District Judge in late 2018.

The phone was seized as part of a garda investigation into violence at a house in Falsk, Strokestown, which had been repossessed in December 2018.

Following a tip-off, Mr Corcoran claimed he arrived at the scene of the property in Roscommon, where several vehicles were on fire, before gardaí and fire services arrived, and he shot some phone footage which was put on the Democrat’s website.

Before his phone was seized, Mr Corcoran, who invoked journalistic privilege some months earlier in relation to its contents, switched it off and refused to provide the PIN.

In the High Court, Mr Justice Garrett Simons had refused to grant Mr Corcoran, the editor of the 'The Democrat' and his company Oncar Ventures Ltd, orders quashing a search warrant forcing him to hand over his phone when gardaí arrived at his Strokestown home.

Mr Justice Simons also ruled that the gardai were not entitled to details of Mr Corcoran's contacts stored on the phone. Mr Corcoran appealed the High Court's findings against him to the CoA. The Commissioner also appealed certain findings of Mr Justice Simons to that court.

In its decision overturning the High Court's key finding, the CoA said the issues raised in the case are complex but added that the right not to disclose journalistic sources is a constitutionally guaranteed right, albeit one which is not absolute. A date for the hearing of the appeal Supreme Court will be fixed later this term.

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