Law Association to AG: Commentary on important matters not contempt of court

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC – SUREASH CHOLAI

THE Law Association (LATT) says neither press nor public commentary on matters of public importance cannot be considered contempt of court. It sought to remind Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, about this following comments he made on the Privy Council’s recent decision on local government elections.

Last Thursday, the Privy Council ruled that Parliament was wrong for extending the term of incumbent local government councillors and aldermen.

In claiming victory, Armour cautioned that any misrepresentation may be in contempt of the court.

He emphasised that the Privy Council said the Government was not seeking to disenfranchise the rights of citizens to vote representatives into office.

“I emphasise this, because this decision is, of course, one with an undoubted political dimension, and there will be those who seek to misrepresent the decision that was handed down… in order to make political capital out of that decision. I suggest and caution that any misrepresentation of this judgment will be wrongly a misrepresentation that can border on contempt.

“So I urge all citizens to take the time to read the judgment carefully, and I would urge the media, particularly the print media, I would recommend to the responsible media, print media, to publish this judgment in full as a pullout in the Sunday newspapers, so the citizens of this country can read this judgment at their leisure and not have to rely on misrepresentations of the judgment by those who would wish to misrepresent what it says to make political capital out of it.”

In a release on Tuesday, LATT said the law of contempt “postulates the fundamental supremacy of law and aims to punish persons who interfere with the administration of justice.”

But it added, “Whilst its application is wide-ranging, it is important to keep in mind that the Constitution also protects freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Fair comment on a matter of public interest is therefore allowed.”

Recalling the ruling, LATT said Armour allegedly said misrepresentation of the findings “by the press to the effect that the Government had usurped people’s constitutional rights could border on contempt.

“The Attorney General alluded that neither the Court of Appeal nor any of the five judges of the Privy Council had found such effect.”

It continued, “In this, the Attorney General is correct and he is reported to say that the Government intends to abide by the decision. However, press commentary or public commentary, even if they do overstate or misinterpret the ruling of the Privy Council, would not be a contempt of court. Commentary on a matter of public importance, including even misleading or misinformed commentary, is protected by freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

It said commentary on the instant decision cannot interfere with the already-completed matter and, “therefore, cannot have the effect of interfering with the administration of justice.

“Further still, in light of the ruling of the Privy Council, public discussions surrounding whether the actions of local government bodies after the expiration of their three-year terms are null and void are valid ones and are protected by the Constitution.”

It called on the government to call local government elections as soon as possible and that the government must consider “validating legislation to remedy any illegality that may have ensued as a result of the postponement of local government elections.”