15 February 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

An auspicious moment for the legal realm in our locality occurred this week when the Central Criminal Court sat in Co Monaghan for the first time in the history of the State.
The High Court has regularly sat on circuit in our courthouses for the determination of civil proceedings, but never before in its criminal law manifestation, and the visit of Mr Justice Paul Carney to conduct a serious criminal trial at Monaghan Courthouse was accorded its due weight of significance and ceremony by the legal profession in this area.
The practice of bringing the Central Criminal Court outside of Dublin to different parts of the country is a welcome development of recent times.
An inevitable sense of remoteness can attach to the administration of criminal justice when its most serious offences are always dealt with at a geographical remove from the majority of the population – and often distant from the locations where the incidents giving rise to the proceedings originated.
Bringing the operation of the higher criminal court to the regions will hopefully contribute to dispelling a prevalent common perception of the law at this level being conducted somehow exterior to ordinary civil society rather than as an integral expression of the common desire for open, transparent and expedient justice which is its fundamental function in the democratic state.
We believe this week’s visit of the Central Criminal Court to Co Monaghan can also serve to reinforce the sense of value that we should all properly place on the jury system in the conduct of criminal trials.
Many people, for understandable but often ill-founded reasons, shirk from the receipt of a summons for jury duty as violently as they would from a summons generated by alleged criminal behaviour.
This is a regrettable attitude, for jury service is an important civic responsibility.
It facilitates a democratisation of what would otherwise be a purely judicial system of administrating the criminal law.
And it enshrines important safeguards for citizens who find themselves accused of serious offences carrying the risk of significant custodial penalty – and that could be any one of us.
“What do I know about the law?” a reluctant prospective juror is sometimes heard to protest – but it is the lack of legal involvement or expertise that qualifies a citizen for this responsibility.
It is rather the accumulated experience and knowledge of life gleaned from their own occupations and social and domestic activities that forms the resource which jurors are expected to call upon to reach a determination on the facts presented to them.
This diverse reservoir of experience might best be descriptively distilled as the collective quality of human empathy on which jurors draw for an appreciation of the actions of the parties involved in the proceedings before them – an empathy that may not be so readily accessible to the judiciary.
Matters of law that may arise in the course of the trial are the province of the presiding judge – but matters of fact are the preserve of the “twelve honest jurymen”, who ensure that the accused receive their entitlement to the honest and lawful judgement of their peers.
The worth of the jury system can sometimes best be illustrated by an evaluation of the quality of justice that pertains in situations where it is absent – in jurisdictions where human rights and democratic institutions are subjugated to corrupt or totalitarian regimes, or, closer to home in recent historical times, when the ‘Diplock’ courts were brought into operation in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.
The jury system is not perfect, but it enshrines important principles that are refreshed and kept vital by consistent public participation in its processes.
And from that participation individuals and society draw benefits, not the least of which is a reassuring sense of the law functioning as an active exercise of the will of the people rather than as an arcane process conducted at a distance from, or in disregard of, the prevailing norms and values of society.
Hopefully the visit of the Central Criminal Court to Co Monaghan this week will heighten our perception and appreciation of this fundamental cornerstone of the legal system that serves us.
The passing away last week of Mr Francis T. McCarron, a member of Monaghan Town Council for 22 years until his retirement in 1990 and the holder of the Chair of that authority on six occasions, hints, upon reflection, of the vanishing of an entire local political era.
A strident Independent voice in Monaghan politics who will be vividly remembered by colleagues, members of the Press and the constituents he served, Mr McCarron’s death has something of a watershed quality when viewed in the context of pending fundamental reforms in local government that will see the abolition of the Town Council tier of administration as it has been traditionally constituted.
Francie, as those of his acquaintance knew him, perpetuated not just a long family tradition of public representation, but also a tradition of non-party alignment in local politics that would now seem to be threatened with extinction by the changes that 2014 will herald.
Colr McCarron was a zealous advocate of the public interest, terrier-like in his persistence when an issue seized him, feisty, unpredictable and a master of the barbed and witty putdown. He took immense pride in the efficiency of his conduct of Town Council meetings when in the Chair, and often completed a full agenda in under an hour with little cavil from his colleagues that he had unduly truncated debate or denied them a platform for articulating an issue of importance to the town.
The Independent tradition he embodied is a long and important one in local governance across all local authorities in our county – and is one being carried on to this day on Monaghan Town Council and in other chambers with a forcefulness that Francie would no doubt have admired.
It is not to underestimate or undermine the proven electoral prowess of our modern generation of Independents to suggest that this tradition is gravely imperilled by the reforms being promulgated by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan under the dubious label of ‘Putting People First’.
The cast of characters in our Council Chambers is to be reduced in 2014 from 65 to a figure as low as 18 – and inevitably there will be a lot less ‘characters’ in that truncated cast!
The political parties will no doubt flex their muscles to claim the lion’s share of the limited seats available, and in the process a colourful strand of Independent representation will in large measure inevitably vanish from the local political scene.
Something important, something fundamental to local democracy, could vanish with it.
Colr McCarron would not have approved.

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