Court coverage under review

| 25/03/2014

(CNS): How the local media reports criminal court proceedings is under review and the Law Reform Commission is asking the public to weigh in on the debate about how press freedom can be better balanced with the right to a fair trial and the proper dispensation of justice. Coverage of the local courts is governed by the sub judice element of the contempt laws, which are similar to those in UK, but in comparison to US media coverage, the rules are considerably more restrictive. Also, there is no law in Cayman that allows journalists to protect sources if they are forced to reveal them by a court and reporters who refuse to doso can go to jail.

While the UK has now abolished the concept of scandalizing the court, which prevents the local media from making the merest hint that a judge may not be performing at his best, the rule remains in Cayman.

As a result of uncertainty over the extent to which the current sub judice rules are limiting the press coverage of the criminal courts and because of a tendency for the media to err on the side of caution rather than risk the potential strict interpretation of the law, many media houses do not cover court proceedings at all, despite the very real and important public interest and the need to ensure justice is not dispensed in unintended secrecy.

Public interest alone at present is no defence for the liability a media house or reporter can have if they publish something that turns out to prejudice a trial, regardless of their intention or if they were unaware of proceedings. This means that covering any kind of legal proceedings that could end up before a jury may place a media house at risk.

The Law Reform Commission has said it wants to make the rules clearer and less ambiguous. The legal experts have raised concerns that the sub judice element of the contempt laws may have a “chilling effect” on the freedom of expression and may also fall foul of the Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, the commission is also keen to prevent any potential prejudice to criminal proceedings.

“We believe that the current law is unduly restrictive of the right of the media to report and comment on particular legal proceedings and may very well not be compliant with the bill of rights,” the law reformers warned about the current law in a discussion paper circulated for comment.

Cayman has engaged in considerable public debate over what the press can and cannot report over the years and the issue of comment on legal cases. From the naming and shaming of child sex offenders to comments on the sentences handed down, a number of sticky legal subjects have fuelled controversy.

With the law applying from the time of the arrest, so that coverage of the case is restricted until the end of the proceedings, journalists sometimes walk a tightrope to balance fairness with public interest. For example, the press may often be called upon to help police get the word out about an escaped prisoner on remand or a wanted man who may be considered dangerous but who is not yet convicted of any crime. The publicity required to protect the public and apprehend a suspect can then very easily become prejudicial down the line when the trial begins.

Regardless of the strict rules that the law reformers say need to be addressed locally, the advent of a global media on the worldwide web throws up many challenges. While journalists locally may be held accountable and restricted in their coverage and comment, those reporting on proceedings here from overseas online can write far more without fear of prosecution, presenting further challenges that need to be considered in the modern media  world.

Members of the public can submit comments on the discussion paper by April 21. Officials said they can be posted to the Director, Law Reform Commission, P.O. Box 1999 KY1-1104, delivered by hand to the offices of the Commission at the first floor of dms House, Genesis Close, George Town, or emailed to Cheryl.Neblett@gov.ky.

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Category: Crime

Comments (3)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Try getting Letters of Administration in under six months. The court system is a mess.

    Oh dear. I hope I haven’t just scandalized the courts……

  2. Anonymous says:

    Her Excellency

    There are two extremely important reforms that are needed.

    1.   Summary Court Cases (including evidence and testimony) must be recorded verbatim. The only official record  apparantly now generated is the Magistrates Summary which is compiled later from their own handwritten notes of the proceedings. This clearly leaves too much room for human error.. 

    2.   While there is good reason for the director of public prosecutions to be able to make independent decisions regarding prosecutions free from interference, there also needs to be checks to the system as well.  An independent body (perhaps the judicicial and legal services commission) should be given the power to conduct confidential random internal reviews of decisions and the rationale. 

     

  3. Anonymous says:

    Live hearing but editing it to avoid witnesses & jury from being seen or heard! That’s real important or the court will not have neither of the both! Precious jury member