Judicial Media Relations Officer: A necessity

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May 09, 2016

My learned colleague, Mr Peter Champagnie, in a commendable article recently published in one of our daily newspapers, addressed the sore issue of the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system. While doing so, he came out in strong defence of our judiciary, which was justified. At the same time, he seems to have, knowingly or unknowingly, identified a serious weakness in the judicial system, when he said: "... Until then, the blame game must stop, and certainly should not be laid at the feet of judges, who now appears to be easy targets in light of the convention where they are not permitted to publicly respond to criticism made against them".

It is true that judges, in keeping with that recognised convention, have refrained from going to the media to personally respond to criticisms about their decisions and the operations of the justice system. However, this is not to say that a judge who is personally and wrongfully attacked in the media could not respond by way of a letter to the media to clarify his/her position. In fact, judges in may jurisdictions, when necessary and in the defence of their integrity, have brought claims against individual citizens for defamation, among other claims. So there is nothing in law which prevents judges from speaking out publicly, particularly in response to unfair and destructive criticisms levelled against them. But the time-honoured restraint is understandable.

It should be noted, however, that judges are accountable to the public they serve and so it should not be left up to the media and other players in the justice system, such as the police, prosecutors and defence counsel, to feed information to the public concerning the system. These entities and persons, invariably, will have their own self-interest in the content of the information they see fit to disseminate, which may not always be in the best interest of the judiciary.

MORE DIRECT ROLE

The judiciary should, therefore, play a more direct role in influencing the content of what is fed to the public concerning the justice system. Too many times, inaccurate and clearly lop-sided and self-serving reporting is left undisturbed, thereby feeding misconceptions about the administration of justice. This has served to undermine public confidence in the justice system and our judiciary. It is time for a change in culture within our justice system, if the judiciary is to maintain its place as the bastion of our democracy.

No one is advocating that our judges should discard the convention-imposed restraint that has been practised for centuries. They are not expected to be out there responding to everything said about them, but there could be well-advised modification in how they relate to the media. The suggestion is simply this: a media relations/ press officer should be appointed for the judiciary.

A media relations officer would formally liaise with the media on behalf of the judiciary in a systematic and sophisticated way. This officer would ensure accurate and objective reporting on the justice system while, at the same time, providing the necessary information about the justice system that is being sought by media houses. This kind of post is part of most modern judiciaries as it is recognised worldwide that there needs to be a change in the relationship between the judiciary and the media "to ensure the accurate perception of the administration of justice by the public". In fact, we can look to the Privy Council, as well as the Caribbean Court of Justice, as prime examples. Indeed, in some places, provisions are made for there to be 'press judge'.

So the sooner a media relations officer/press officer is appointed for our judiciary, the better it would be for judges to be assured that they, too, have a voice and that they do not have to rely on the lawyers who practise before them to jump to their aid, when the need arises. So, over to you Madam Chief Justice!

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