Bring the courts into the era of technology

Friday, July 27, 2018

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The current debate on the appropriateness of attorneys giving interviews to the press during trials is healthy and, we believe, provides even more justification for the Government's plan to introduce live streaming of select criminal and civil cases.

In fact, we suspect that had this live streaming feature been in place we would not now be engaged in this discussion, even as we accept that there are some cases, such as in-camera matters, that could not be televised.

Former Court of Appeal President Seymour Panton triggered the debate when he expressed concern that some attorneys have been “misguidedly giving interviews and making speeches on radio and television, and in the press, in respect of cases that are actually in progress before the courts”.

Justice Panton argued that those attorneys, “by their utterances, are seeking to influence the jurors who are trying the cases, and the judges who are hearing the arguments, outside the confines of the courtroom”.

He also argued that the attorneys were projecting one side of the story only, describing it as “not a fair attitude” and “a side blow to our system of justice”.

His concern that only one side of the story is being presented to the media and, by extension, the public, through these interviews is legitimate. However, as the attorneys have pointed out, they have not been saying anything to journalists that they didn't say in court.

Further, the case that was most prominent at the time that Justice Panton made his comments was an appeal matter, which, the lawyers pointed out, was being heard only by judges who would not be swayed by any public comment.

In response to the comments, Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) President Dionne Jackson Miller made a significant point that “explanations and summaries from attorneys involved in a matter are of vital importance in helping both reporters and the public understand the often complex and nuanced issues involved in criminal proceedings”.

We share the PAJ's position that, while the constitutional right of accused individuals to a fair trial must be maintained, so too must the right to freedom of expression, and the right of the public to seek and receive information.

In that sense, we reiterate our support for the introduction of live streaming of trials in which the rights of accused individuals, victims, and witnesses will not be breached or their safety compromised.

That, we hold, will not only bring some amount of transparency to the judicial system, but will improve the public's understanding, and hopefully their trust, of how courts operate.

At the same time, we repeat our call for the courts to allow journalists to use electronic recording devices, particularly tape recorders, to cover cases. For, as we have argued before, this will improve accuracy in reporting and contribute to the public gaining a better understanding of trial dialogue.

It shouldn't be that, in this age of high technology, we are still relying on handwritten notes, especially as the State has already started introducing the use of advanced technology in courtrooms.

Successful societies are those that adapt to and keep pace with changes. Remember that the media are the eyes and ears of the public, all of whom could not fit at the same time into a single courtroom.

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