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PAJ urges balanced approach to issue of lawyers talking to media

Monday, July 23, 2018

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The Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) yesterday noted the current controversy around whether lawyers should give interviews to the media during criminal trials in particular and suggested that the approach should not be one of avoiding interaction with the press, but rather, encouraging more care and responsibility in public pronouncements.

“The PAJ is well aware of the critical importance of ensuring that the constitutional right of the accused to a fair trial is maintained, but points out that other rights are engaged here, including the right to freedom of expression, and the right of the public to seek and receive information,” the association said in a statement.

The PAJ was responding to a letter by former Court of Appeal President Seymour Panton published in The Gleaner last week, in which he expressed concern that some attorneys-at-law 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 of the land”.

Panton said he was very surprised that the General Legal Council (GLC) and the various bar associations have chosen to be asleep while the practice continues. “It is a matter that I think they will regret in due course if they do not act and rein in these attorneys-at-law,” he said.

“It seems to me that these 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. They are, of course, projecting one side of the story — their side. That is not a fair attitude. That is a side blow to our system of justice,” Panton added.

In response, the GLC said that “statements concerning pending judicial proceedings which may have the effect of influencing the outcome of proceedings is an interference with the administration of justice and as such is punishable as a contempt of court”.

But yesterday, PAJ President Dionne Jackson Miller, who is also an attorney, said that “although the GLC's statement did not say that lawyers cannot speak to the media, our experience is that expressions like this, without more, can be interpreted as a blanket prohibition on speaking to the press.

“This would be undesirable, and a grave disservice to the public,” Jackson Miller added.

She said that in an age where public trust in the processes of justice is vital, instant communication and social media are accepted ways of life, we need to find more open and transparent ways of bringing the public into the courtrooms and halls of justice.

“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,” the PAJ president said. “It is difficult for the public to trust a system it does not understand.”

The PAJ suggested that several possibilities which the legal profession may wish to consider are media training for lawyers, and also encouraging prosecutors as well as defence attorneys to be more open with the press, within acceptable limits.

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