Justices have become easy targets for social media criticism because they can’t respond, according to incoming Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell.
The Supreme Court judge said social media has “completely changed public affairs and social discourse”.
One of the driving forces of populism, he said, is the identification of “the so-called elite”, far from everyday life, who make decisions that affect society. He said judges are “increasingly being chosen in this role, along with politicians”, and are subject to “increasingly reductive, simplistic and personal commentary”.
“In the case of elimination, they are a particularly easy target because they cannot respond and do not respond,” he said.
Mr O’Donnell made the comments at the Bar Association of Ireland conference, his first public address since Cabinet nominated him last month to replace outgoing Chief Justice Frank Clark, who is retiring later this year.
Rather than judges’ inability to respond to this criticism as a flaw, it was a structural feature of the legal system. But this makes the law and the law courts an especially easy target for the worst in the new internet world,” said Judge O’Donnell.
The Supreme Court judge said there is strong agreement that judges do not engage in public debate or discuss matters that could be the subject of litigation.
“Parties are entitled to have a case decided by an independent and impartial person and decide only on facts, arguments and nothing else. The judges are expected to speak once in the context of a formal ruling. They are not expected to respond.”
The new chief justice said the legal process is everything not on social media.
“The shares traded on social media are fast, instant judgments, and the more controversial and attention-grabbing, the better,” he said.
This included “reinforcing” and “exaggerating” pre-existing opinions and prejudices, and “sometimes toxic attacks on opponents facilitated by anonymity”.
In turn, Judge O’Donnell said, the rulings were not immediate. “It is the product of discussion, careful consideration, reflection, and sometimes revision on appeal. They are not limited to 280 characters,” he said.
Asking what could be done to bolster public support for the legal system, he reiterated the judiciary’s call in 2014 for a “fit for purpose” system for appointing judges.
“Respect for the justice system begins with the system for appointing judges,” he said.
Judge O’Donnell also said another issue that could be considered is legal costs.
He said it has been difficult to maintain respect for the rule of law as litigants feel they have to settle a case in which they would prefer to disagree because the costs of the hearing are prohibitive.