Contempt of Court law to be considered by Parliament

It’s a bit ironic that after nine years as Attorney-General it is from Opposition that Chris Finlayson is got a bill into Partliament that will consider Contempt of Court law changes that would toughen up on criticism of judges, especially via social media, and also publishing information that could prejudice an arrested person’s right to a fair trial .

Audrey Young (NZH): It took a move to Opposition for Chris Finlayson to make progress on contempt law

A proposed new law of contempt, setting boundaries for what can and can’t be said by the media, particularly social media, about defendants, trials and judges is going to be examined by Parliament.

One of the most controversial parts of the bill is likely to be penalties for making untrue allegations against judges, which will attract a fine of up to $50,000 or up to two years imprisonment.

Some abuse of judges was calculated to intimidate judges individually or collectively, said the bill’s sponsor, former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.

I’ve seen what look like examples of this on a particular website that shouldn’t (mustn’t) be named here (for legal reasons).

“Such abuse is capable of undermining the rule of law. Judicial independence and impartiality is at the heart of the rule of law.”

The previous National Government commissioned the Law Commission to look at the law of contempt. It came up with plenty of recommendations and a draft bill to implement them.

But Finlayson was unable to convince the Ministry of Justice to make it a legislative priority so it languished.

So in Opposition Finlayson adopted the Law Commission’s bill as his own private member’s bill – which was recently drawn from the biscuit tin in the regular ballots for members’ bills.

So it is just by the luck of the draw that has enabled this to be considered by Parliament.

And Justice Minister Andrew Little will seek the support of his Cabinet colleagues to adopt it as a government bill after it passes its first reading, which is likely to be next week.

“Now that it has been drawn and has to be considered, we might as well do it properly,” Little said.

That’s very good to see from Little. He has made a good start as Minister of Justice in the Labour led government, on more than this issue.

The Administration of Justice (Reform of Contempt of Court) Bill will set those laws out in one place and come up with rules that will apply equally to mainstream media, and people commenting or blogging, tweeting or posting publicly through social media on the courts.

It will also cover disruptions in court, jurors who breach the rules by doing their own independent research, the enforcement of court orders, and malicious attacks on judges.

A lot of the time, people did not know what the boundaries were, including tweeters sitting in the back of a courtroom.

“I want to get this thing properly debated for the sake of the system,” said Finlayson.

“I think there is a danger in our system that we become obsessed when looking at justice questions with ‘law and order’ type issues and we don’t look at the other areas that are so fundamental to the efficient and successful running of our state.”

One of the issues on which he expected there would be debate was on criticism of judges.

Judges should not be immune from criticism for their decisions, he said.

“I’m not concerned about judges being criticised for their judgments but I am concerned about the abuse of judges and the attempts to intimidate judges, be it individually or collectively.

“Fair criticism is different from abuse.”

The aim of the bill was to make sure the boundaries were clear and people knew what they can and cannot do.

In the modern era of social media it will be good for this to be clarified.

Little has some concerns about what limitations are put on the criticism of judges.

Free speech versus the functions and  integrity of the judicial system.

What the bill does:

  • A person or organisation commits an offence if it publishes information that could prejudice an arrested person’s right to a fair trial, and is liable for up to six months imprisonment or a fine of $25,000 for an individual or $100,000 for an organisation.
  • Publishing untrue accusations against a judge punishable by up to two years imprisonment and a $50,000 fine for individuals and $100,000 for organisations.
  • A person wilfully disrupting court proceedings may be fined up to $10,000 or imprisoned for up to three months.
  • A person disobeying a court order may be fined up to $10,000 or imprisoned for up to three months.
  • A juror convicted of intentionally researching information relevant to the case is liable for a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment of up to three months.

That’s what is being considered by Parliament, it hasn’t been agree on yet.

The first one is of particular interest to users of social media – it is important that the law is clear on this.

Little has concerns about the last one.

He is also opposed to making it an offence for jurors to research cases…

“Most jurors get a pittance as a substitute for their wages. Most are reluctant to be there and they are doing it out of a civic duty,” he said.

“A better balance needs to be struck but that can be dealt with at select committee.”

I would think it would be difficult to discover let alone convict a juror for intentionally researching information relevant to the case.

9 Comments

  1. Blazer

     /  April 3, 2018

    ‘I’m not concerned about judges being criticised for their judgments but I am concerned about the abuse of judges and the attempts to intimidate judges, be it individually or collectively.’…when have there been attempts to abuse or intimidate …judges?Surely existing law covers those instances.
    ‘I would think it would be difficult to discover let alone convict a juror for intentionally researching information relevant to the case.’…you are forgetting we now live in a society where spying is condoned ,by the state and privacy issues are ignored by some private social media.
    The irony is of course the recent award to Dotcom for damages because former AG and Q.C Finlayson…’misinterpreted’….the law!

    • ‘Misinterpretation’ or differing opinions on law are very common, they get argued in the courts all the time. And that’s a fundamental function of appeal courts, to decide on disputed interpretations of law.

      • Blazer

         /  April 3, 2018

        Newshub…’On Monday, the Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the Attorney-General unlawfully withheld information from Mr Dotcom, meaning he perverted the course of justice.

        The Government and Ministers have been ordered to comply with the original requests and supply all relevant documents to Mr Dotcom’
        ‘unlawfully’…against the law,crystal clear and unambiguous decision.Finlayson comes across as…incompetent,and has cost hardworking NZ’ers a minimum of $90,000.

  2. NOEL

     /  April 3, 2018

    Jury service should be considered an accident and ACC apply.r

  3. Judges don’t want to be judged?
    How extraordinary.
    I feel sure there are thousands who, after a misdemeanor, don’t want to be judged either but have no say in it

  4. Blazer

     /  April 3, 2018

    Last administration was happy with…’pretty legal’ as a barometer.

  5. Alan Wilkinson

     /  April 3, 2018

    Smells like gross overkill to me. Judges can use defamation law like anyone else just as jurors can use google. Parliament should bin it.

    • artcroft

       /  April 3, 2018

      Judges know how slow and ineffective the courts are. They want Justice served quickly in their own cases.

  6. Alan Wilkinson

     /  April 3, 2018

    Speaking of judges, another ridiculous decision by America’s politicised judiciary:
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=12025111