Justice Batts for the media
SUPREME Court Judge Justice David Batts has come out swinging in defence of the freedom given to the Jamaican press in covering matters before the courts, warning that there should be a reluctance to “impose fetters on the media” given the importance public opinion plays in how the judiciary wields its power.
In a recent address to the Jamaican Bar Association, Justice Batts, who made it clear that he was speaking independently, said while the relationship between the courts and the media has come a “long way” … “it is clear more needs to be done to sensitise judges and the media about the protocol as we give real meaning to the ideal of ‘open justice’ “.
Said Justice Batts, “the media, whether public or private — meaning all methods of conveying information and/or commentary — is essential to the provision of information about our courts. This is useful in two respects. First is the inherent value in a democracy of public knowledge about public institutions and, in particular, the law and how it is administered. But secondly, it is an important mechanism whereby the unelected judiciary can be restrained from excesses”.
“Inherent in a separation of power is a risk that the unrestrained exercise of power by the judiciary can itself become a source of tyranny; public opinion on the exercise of that power is an important safeguard. In a democracy, conveyance of information about the court and its decisions is therefore critical. We should, for this reason, be reluctant to impose fetters on the media,” the Supreme Court judge noted.
Justice Batts, in noting further that “public observation of trials and the judicial process helps to ensure fairness, reduces mistrust, and encourages confidence” warned that “all this may be lost if trials are held in secret and without a jury or if restrictions are placed on reports about what has taken place in open court”.
“Just as a properly funded and organised jury system acts as a bulwark against autocracy, so too does public observation and commentary on the work of the judiciary. Public observation and comment, in the modern world, is greatly facilitated by media reporting,” he noted further.
In pointing to the comprehensive Media Protocol developed by the Court Administration Division which, among other things, issues detailed guidance to media practitioners who report on court proceedings and provides guidance on coverage while a trial is in progress, Justice Batts said the protocol, which serves to reinforce Jamaica’s proud record of open justice, “in part accounts for Jamaica’s positive rating for public confidence in our system of justice”.
As such, the respected jurist said, “it is regrettable that our courts, in the name of security, have taken on the aura of fortresses”.
“The police interrogation of all who enter, as to purpose of visit and name of case they are attending, is a disincentive to public attendance. I contrast it to visits I have made to courts in England at various levels where, although screened for weapons, I was asked no question about my identity or the purpose of my visit, or even if I was an attorney-at-law — that in a country which has had IRA and other terrorist experiences” Justice Batts argued.
The IRA (Irish Republican Army) was established in 1919 to halt British rule in Northern Ireland. It fought for independence and a reunified republic, using bombs among its attacks on public figures and military targets. In 2005 the IRA formally announced an end to its armed campaign, saying that units have been ordered to dump arms. It also said in a statement that, “All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means.”
Noting that he has “long had concerns about the fact that the administration of justice appears to be isolating itself from public view and participation”, Justice Batts said “an open-door policy to the media is an important counterweight to that development”.
Justice Batts, who said he had canvassed members of the media to hear their concerns ahead of his presentation, told his audience that practitioners had expressed, among other things, discontent with “the increasing practice by judges and the police of barring the media and the public from cases that are not in-camera, and the perception that journalists must ask the Court Administration Division permission to get into the simplest of cases, forcing practitioners to rely on second-hand information”.
Other grouses included access to courts and documents and court orders, and judgments not being readily available to reporters when handed down or delivered. There were also concerns that media houses have failed to provide even the basic training for journalists who cover the courts, and that journalists do not take the time to understand the nuances of court reporting.
Other peeves were that media houses have a limited capacity to assign dedicated reporters or teams to cover a single trial for one or two weeks, and that the court should issue summaries of judgments as is done at the Privy Council and the Caribbean Court of Justice.