In an entertaining post which also raises the serious issue of journalistic responsibility, the Nearly Legal blog has put a Daily Mail “family law expert” on the naughty step in relation an article on a recent Supreme Court decision on the meaning of domestic violence in housing cases.
According to the respected housing law blog, the Mail article, entitled Shout at your spouse and risk losing your home: It’s just the same as domestic violence, warns woman judge, demonstrates“why the Mail is not a paper of record for case reports”. And
The Mail appears to consider that a definition of violence that doesn’t require physical assault means a falling away from the standards of the good old days.
As Nearly Legal points out, far from taking a radical position, the Supreme Court merely confirmed what family lawyers, the police, the government and even the local council in the case have been saying about domestic violence for years. And why Baroness Hale is identified in the title as a “woman” judge is anybody’s guess, but the implication seems to be that one of Britain’s most senior judges is letting her gender cloud her judgment.
As well as accusing the unnamed reporter of “sheer incompetence” for their presentation of the judgment which extended the definition of domestic violence (see Nearly Legal’s excellent analysis of the case by way of contrast), the post takes issue with the “family law expert“ quoted in the piece, who is probably, in fact, the former head of a right-wing think-tank and a commercial, employment, but not family, lawyer.
The post raises a serious issue which we have discussed on a number of occasions recently in relation to human rights law: inaccurate legal reporting in the press. Two weeks ago I highlighted poor reporting by the Daily Telegraph in a recent deportation case involving two sons of former Gurkha soldiers. In November many newspapers reported that the failure to deport Learco Chindamo, the notorious killer of a school headmaster, was due to human rights but this was not really what the case was about . And, more recently, the case of an “asylum seeker death driver” was misunderstood.
Two questions must be asked of any article about a legal ruling. First, is the presentation of the law correct? This question not straightforward, as legal rulings are often complex and sometimes difficult even for lawyers to understand. But reporters must at least make a decent effort to explain what the ruling means, and if there is complexity, admit that there is. It is not enough to find an “expert” who agrees with one, often controversial, interpretation of a case which conforms with a newspaper’s editorial position, and present their view as fact.
The second question is whether there is more than one reasonable reaction to the case. If so, those different responses should be expressed. For example, in the domestic violence case, it is wholly reasonable to say that the interpretation of the legislation by Baroness Hale may have stretched the statutory language too far. That can hardly be unreasonable as Lord Brown said exactly that in a strange and potentially problematic semi-dissent to the judgment. But surely it is misleading to present one side of the argument and not the other. This is compounded by using a potentially dodgy “expert” to bolster an editorial position.
The effect of poor legal reporting often extends beyond an article’s readers. For example, the naughty Daily Mail article has already been picked up and commented on by a Daily Telegraph blogger, Christina Odone, who predictably picks up none of the judgment’s nuance, and presents the case in the same inaccurate light. She also exclaims “This judge is an ass!”
So, even if Nearly Legal declined to put the Daily Mail on the naughty step, it should be there along with the ‘family law expert’ quoted in the article. And if the legal reporting by some newspapers continues to place rulings into convenient and over-simplified tropes, rather than explaining them properly to the general public, the legal naughty step will become something of a staircase.
If the presentation of law in newspaper articles concerns you, the online Press Complaints Commission form is here.
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