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A red flag from the Chief Justice

By Kenneth Lalla

 The recent statements by two presenters on television stating that  “magistrates and Judges have been bought out” and that “judges of the Supreme Court are long-winded and clowns” have caused the Chief Justice to issue a warning to journalists against “flirting with contempt of court”.  

The question of whether the words used by the two journalists amount to or constitute contempt of court would be an issue to be determined by the court. However, the publishing of an article making scurrilous abuse of a judge or statements that may be calculated to bring the court or a judge of the court into disrepute or to interfere with the course or administration of justice may constitute contempt of court.  

The Chief Justice’s warning has therefore clearly raised a red flag to journalists as well other citizens that they should exercise care and caution when making statements purporting to criticise or cast aspersions on judges or the courts or the administration of justice. 

On the other hand it is well established that the right to criticise is the birthright of every citizen and applies to decisions of the court and all matters of public interest and importance, provided always that this right is exercised with fairness and courtesy and subject to the laws of libel and slander. 

While it is within the right of journalists to criticise by way of reasonable comment on judicial decisions as being contrary to law or to the public good or public interest the right to such comments and/or criticisms is not greater than that of the individual. 

It has been well established that judges hold the view that from the nature of their office they do not fear criticisms nor do they resent them nor will they use their jurisdiction to uphold their dignity provided that criticisms are kept within the limits of courtesy and good faith. The courts have also held that no amount of criticism will amount to contempt of court provided that it is not an attack on judges or calculated to interfere with the administration of justice. Accordingly it is the liberty and inalienable right of every citizen as well as the news media to make fair or outspoken comments on any episode or matter of public interest before the courts provided that they are not intended to bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

Further, from the very nature of the office of judges they do not reply to criticisms leveled against them nor do they descend into public or political controversy.

 On the contrary the courts have held that the right to criticise is one of the pillars of liberty and freedom of speech which have always been upheld by them. As a consequence no criticism of a judge, however vigorous, can amount to contempt of court provided that it is kept within the limits of reasonable fairness and accuracy. 

On the other hand it has been held that any act done or writing published calculated to bring a court or judge into contempt would constitute contempt of court.

In R v Gray (1900) Q.B. 36, Lord Russel of Killowen  C.J. said:“Judges and Courts are alike open to criticism and if reasonable argument or expostulation is offered against any judicial act as contrary to law or public good, no court could or would treat that as contempt of court.”

Further, in the landmark case of Ambard v The Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago (1936) 1 All E. R. 704 the Privy Council in its illuminating judgment held that no wrong would be committed by any member of the public exercising his ordinary right to criticise in good faith judges or the courts provided that he abstains from imputing improper motives to those taking part in the administration of justice.

 In this case Ambard was editor of a newspaper and was found guilty of contempt of court for criticisms leveled by his paper for anomalous differences or inequality between sentences imposed by judges but his sentence was reversed by the Privy Council which held, inter alia, that “Justice is not a cloistered virtue: she must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful even outspoken comments of ordinary men.” 

 
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