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Double jeopardy?

By Steven | October 29, 2010

Is the Law Commission being tasked with a job already farmed out to the Dean of VUW’s law school?

The Attorney-General engaged VUW dean Tony Smith to write a paper on our contempt of court laws, including the ways in which they are being affected by the internet. Is it undermining confidence in court orders, or courts’ ability to do their jobs? Tony Smith is the author of the leading text on contempt, and is tackling the research with recently retired Court of Appeal judge Bruce Robertson.

Then we get Simon Power’s announcement that the Law Commission will look at… much the same thing. Its task will be broader – “to review the adequacy of regulations around how the Interent interacts with the justice system” – but there seems to be overlap:

Issues I’m concerned about include how trials can be prejudiced by information posted on websites and seen by jurors, real-time online streaming of court cases, breaches of court suppression orders, and re-publication of a libel.

Another odd thing about Power’s press release. Having said that this is his concern, here’s his summary of the issues he’s referring to the Commission:

• How to define ‘news media’ for the purposes of the law.
• Whether and to what extent the jurisdiction of the Broadcasting Standards Authority and/or the Press Council should be extended to cover currently unregulated news media, and if so what legislative changes would be required to achieve this.
• Whether existing criminal and civil remedies for wrongs such as defamation, harassment, breach of confidence, and privacy are effective in the new media environment, and if not whether alternative remedies are available.

So… where’s the directive to look at “how trials can be prejudiced by information posted on websites and seen by jurors, real-time online streaming of court cases, breaches of court suppression orders…”?

Presumably, that stuff gets covered by the words “such as”…

Power calls the Internet a “bit of a Wild West” because “bloggers and online publishers are not subject to any form of regulation or professional or ethical standards.” Let’s be charitable and call this language merely loose. Of course bloggers are subject to the same criminal and civil laws – name suppression, defamation, censorship laws, etc – as anyone else. Those laws are not so easily avoided online as some commentators believe. In fact, in some ways it’s easier to attack online publications because ISPs often fear associated liability and can be persuaded to pull the plug on bloggers’ content themselves.

But Power is generally right to say that online publishers are not subject to equivalent ethical regulation to the Press Council and Broadcasting Standards Authority. But the Press Council does consider complaints about websites associated with print publications (and may even have its arm twisted to consider complaints about news sites that are purely online, such as Scoop… I don’t think anyone’s tried yet). It is silly that the BSA has no power to touch the clips on broadcasters’ websites, so that broadcasters can post them with impunity even when complaints against them have been upheld.

Still, whether their powers ought to be extended to bloggers is a different kettle of fish…

By the way, with John Burrows and Cate Brett at the helm, this project ought to be a corker.

Topics: Contempt of Court, General, Internet issues | 40 Comments »

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