The Supreme Court reveals its Achilles Heel – Dr Richard Cornes

Supreme Court press briefingOn October 2 at 10am, the United Kingdom Supreme Court held an hour long pre-term press-briefing to mark the opening of the Court’s fifth year. This blog looks not only at what was said by the Court, and asked by the journalists on the day, but also what was then reported.

The Supreme Court’s relationship with the media is marked by the same combination of common interests and tensions which mark the media’s relationship with any other public body. Yes the Court wants media coverage; and a function of the media is to cover the Court. The media though will always want more than its subjects are looking to give up, and not only that, will often frame how the subject is presented according to each outlet’s particular agendas. Further, the Court, and its justices, will also have their own goals about what messages should be highlighted.

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The BAILII lecture: No Judgment, No Justice

For justice to be seen to be done, judgments given in open court must be accessible in two senses. They must be clearly written so that a reasonably well informed member of the public can understand what is being decided. But they must also be available to the public, and in this sense their accessibility depends on their being reported.

Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, so stated in the first BAILII annual lecture, hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP at their premises in Fleet Street last night. The full speech can be read here.

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Libel reform debate hots up as new Government takes advice on reform

Set the ball rolling

The recent announcement of the review of libel and privacy law by a high-profile panel has led to a flurry of conjecture, comment and proposals. The new Government has pledged to reform the law of libel, but what shape will the reforms take?

The committee, which was announced last month, is being led by Lord Neuberger, the head of the Court of Appeal, and will be composed of legal and media experts. One notable absence, as Joshua Rozenberg blogs, is Mr Justice Eady, who has been responsible for many of the more controversial “super injunctions”.

The new Coalition Government have pledged to “reform libel laws to protect freedom of speech“. Cases involving libel, defamation and super-injunctions have seen two competing European Convention rights fighting it out; Article 8 (right to privacy) versus Article 10 (freedom of expression).

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New head of Court of Appeal making waves on civil liberties

Making waves

Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls (head of the Court of Appeal), has only been in post for six months but has already made significant waves, particularly in a series of judgments on the impact of terrorism law on civil liberties. In a speech yesterday, he discussed the experience of having his judgment censored during the Binyam Mohamed appeal.

He used an old Woody Allen joke to describe the experience, saying that his “favourite of his aphorisms is I’m not afraid of dying – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” He continued that the this has some resonance for him now, as “I’m not afraid of changing my judgments – I just don’t want to be there when I do.

The tone of the speech was light – Lord Neuberger has been praised for his unusually (for a judge) affable manner – but it does provide an opportunity to take stock of the Master of the Rolls’ eventful first six months in post.

An eventful six months

Lord David Neuberger turned down the chance to be an inaugural member of the UK Supreme Court in order to head up the Court of Appeal, the second highest appeal court. He had already been highly critical of the evolution of the House of Lords to the Supreme Court. Six months later, it already seems clear that the Court of Appeal under its new Master of the Rolls is to be an activist court, and particularly in relation to civil liberties.

We posted last week on the three provocative linked judgments, each written by Lord Neuberger and Lord Justices Maurice Kay and Sullivan, released as a triptych on the same day. The appeals all related to terrorism legislation, and each judgment sought to limit the ability of the Government and security services to keep evidence secret – from the public and even the parties to the litigation – in civil trials. A fourth, relating to control orders in a criminal context, was also released on the same day.

The security services will see the judgments as a fly in their ointment, arguing that the protection of the public from terrorism sometimes trumps the principle of open justice, that justice is done but is also seen to be done. The Government will say in the inevitable appeals to the Supreme Court that the Court of Appeal judgments have stymied their ability to fight terrorism, making it impossible in future for the security services to keep sensitive information from the public domain.

Censorship and the Binyam Mohamed affair

Whilst the three linked judgments were important, by far the most controversial incident involving Lord Neuberger’s court was the censoring of part of a judgment in an appeal relating to Binyam Mohamed (see our post). The court ordered that an email concerning MI5’s knowledge of Mr Mohamed’s alleged torture be disclosed. But part of Lord Neuberger’s judgment, the now notorious paragraph 168, was sharply critical of MI5’s involvement in the material events as well as their conduct in the litigation. Upon an application by the Government, the paragraph was briefly sanitised, and then eventually restored to its original wording.

Lord Neuberger spoke about the experience of “seeing one paragraph of a judgment being discussed in op-ed pieces, headlines. TV and radio bulletins and interviews, and, I imagine, the tweets.” He continued:

One thing the Binyam Mohamed case did teach me was that even a Master of the Rolls should not tempt fate. The day before we initially handed down judgment in the case, the Lord Chief Justice asked me how I was getting on with the new job after my first 20 weeks. Blithely ignorant of what was to happen the following day, tempting fate, I said that, for the first time I was beginning to feel in control of things. Let me tell you: one is never in control of things, above all when one thinks one is. As Woody Allen said, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans. Although my favourite of his aphorisms is I’m not afraid of dying – I just don’t want to be there when it happens. I suppose that that has some resonance for me now: I’m not afraid of changing my judgments – I just don’t want to be there when I do.

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Super injunctions, bad habits and secret justice [updated]

Super injunctions, John Terry, human rights

No more super injunctions?

Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, provided an interesting discussion on so-called “super injunctions” in a speech on 28 April 2010. He said that “Where justice is carried out in secret, away from public scrutiny, bad habits can develop. Even if they don’t develop, the impression may arise that they have done so.

Super injunctions came to prominence as a result of the case involving footballer John Terry, who initially used the courts to block publication of details of his extra marital affair, as well as all mention of the case.

The speech will be of particular interest to libel lawyers, as Lord Neuberger is currently chairing a high-profile panel to review super-injunctions which may lead to their demise. The speech provides a useful background to the issue in terms of human rights law, as well as in relation to freedom of speech in the United States (see our recent post on the topic).

Lord Neuberger gave little away, but does strongly emphasise the importance of open justice, which the super injunction has arguably diminished. The following paragraph may worry lawyers and celebrities who hope that the super injunction will survive:

29. But what of the substantive issue? How do we reconcile such injunctions with the principle of open justice? The first thing we could say is, as Mr Justice Tugendhat, the judge in the Terry case, pointed out, where such an issue is raised it requires intense scrutiny by the court. It does so because openness is one of the means by which public confidence in the proper administration of justice is maintained. Where justice is carried out in secret, away from public scrutiny, bad habits can develop. Even if they don’t develop, the impression may arise that they have done so. Neither reality nor suspicion are an acceptable feature of any open society.

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