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Sunday Star-Times looks to be in contempt

By Steven | March 27, 2011

Publishing interviews with jurors about the case they have decided is a contempt of court. Our courts have said that if jurors thought  their deliberations may be made public, they’d be less willing to serve on a jury and less willing to be frank during deliberations. Revisiting cases may also upset the finality of jury verdicts.

These premises are not unchallengeable, and do not even seem to apply with great force here. What’s more, such interviews take place regularly in the US without the sky falling. But our courts have been (sometimes ridiculously) staunch about the rule.

So it’s hard to see how the SST gets away with this and this.

Topics: Contempt of Court | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Sunday Star-Times looks to be in contempt”

  1. metanarratives Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Steven,

    I think you may have the law wrong here (or misapplied it), or perhaps my understanding is dreadfully out of date and there has been further developments and direction since Solicitor-General v Radio New Zealand (Tamihere). Maybe we read Tamihere differently.

    The Sunday Star Times instanced (‘here’) is different to what happened in Solicitor-General v Radio New Zealand (‘there’):

    * Here the jurors contacted the Sunday Star Times. There Radio New Zealand obtained a jury list and initiated the contact and contacted a large number of jurors on the list. There a jury list fell off a table in court and a journalistic picked it up, kept it and used it – contrary to provisions in the Juries Act. Here jurors wanted to speak – willing to be identified – and deliberately approached the media (one going to some effort, using an intermediary). There jurors said they were surprised and annoyed by the approach from the reporter (… some called the Police after the approach).

    * Here the case seems to be over, and the reported comments from the jurors support that. Further a not guilty verdict was returned (and the Crown rarely appeals such verdicts). There jurors were contacted after a further development in the case – the discovery of a body – and asked what they thought, asked to speculate and whether it changed the verdict or their reasoning. There legal liability was before upper levels of the criminal process – guilty verdicts are more readily appealed than not guilty verdicts.

    * Here it seems the reporter just allowed the jurors to talk. There extensive questioning was conducted by the reporter. Here the jurors seem to uphold their verdict, their comments show the system working, supporting the value of the jury system for the administration of justice – applying the law as it was at the time, but not just applying the law (the ‘little parliament’ function of the jury) also coming into play. The headline was “Jurors stand by their disputed cruelty verdict.” There jurors were asked and did questioned the verdict and therefore its finality.

    * Here there is unity (from the reported comments). There the reported comments showed disunity – jurors being played off against each other on the airwaves.

    New Zealand has no statute like the jury contempt provision as in the UK for juries – Contempt of Court Act, section 8. However this may not matter. There has been some comment in the UK that section 8 has been misinterpreted – and when interpreted properly it does not disallow post-trial interaction with jurors.

    I don’t think it should really be a surprise that the odd juror comment surfaces in the paper – and don’t think the judiciary (or solicitor general) ought to rush into outrage. Some perspective is needed. From what I have seen it is not uncommon for jurors to talk after service – especially when it has been a long trial. When leaving court some jurors may approach or be approached by victims or their family. Sometimes they make conversation with lawyers. Sometimes jurors attend sentencing, and even sit and converse with the defendant’s family throughout sentencing. Some jurors also write letters, to the court, to the Ministry of Justice, to the trial judge and sometimes to lawyers involved. Sometimes they also pick up the phone and ring the paper.

  2. Steven Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Did I get the law wrong? I note Burrows and Cheer in Media Law in NZ (6ed) say it’s “quite unsafe… to publish information about a jury’s deliberations elicited from a juror.” They note that papers seem to have gotten away with publishing some material from jurors where the jurors approach the media – but those have not contained information about their deliberations.

    That’s plainly the attitude that’s taken by the judiciary, as I discuss in my earlier post (linked to in the post above). The Chief District Court and Chief High Court judges said material should not be published about deliberations apparently even in circumstances where it’s the juror who approaches the media.

    Is this a misapplication of the RNZ case? You may have cared to note that I said the rationales in the RNZ case do not apply with the same force in this case. My earlier post makes many of the same points you make here about the reach of the RNZ case. But as I say, the judges don’t seem to think that matters.

    To some extent, they are surely right. If potential future jurors see stories like this – even if they are initiated by the jurors themselves, who seem to be unanimous – they may well get the idea that what they say in the jury room is fair game for the media later, and that may hamper deliberations. Looked at in that way, there’s a big difference between a juror having a word with a victim and the publication of a news story containing information about the content of deliberations.

    But, like you, I think this is taking things too far. I say so in the earlier post. I don’t think that approach to contempt is entirely in keeping with the RNZ case, and I don’t think it can survive scrutiny as a “demonstrable justification” under the Bill of Rights.

    Still, it does seem to be what the judges think the law is. And that’s the view that counts.

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