End of a Scandal

An attempt to criminalize criticism of New Zeand’s judges is rejected by a parliamentary select committee

Last year, the New Zealand Parliament took up a bill to update and reform the law of contempt of court. A worthy endeavour, but one that was seriously flaw in at least one very important way, as I argued at the time: one of the ways in which the bill changed the law was that it not only codified but seriously expanded the common law offence of “scandalizing the court” ― that is, according to a classic definition in R v Gray, [1900] 2 QB 36, doing or saying something “calculated to bring a Court or a judge of the Court into contempt, or to lower his authority”. (40)

Obviously, the common law offence, if understood broadly, might have applied to vast amounts of perfectly legitimate criticism, including of the sort that is this blog’s trademark, so the courts applied it sparingly and with an eye ― indeed both eyes ― towards preserving the freedom of expression in this context. Even so, the offence has been abolished by statute in the United Kingdom, and left in a zombie-like state in Canada following the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in R v Kopyto, which held that, in its current form, the law of scandalising the court was not consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

By contrast, the bill before the New Zealand Parliament would have expanded the offence, notably by criminalizing the expression of opinion ― including opinion honestly held on the basis of publicly known or fairly stated fact ― if that opinion could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, or impartiality of a judge or court. The bill would also have criminalized the true statements of fact having that tendency, unless the accused were able to prove their truth on a balance of probabilities ― thus trenching on the presumption of innocence. And, in addition to this, the bill would also have created enforcement powers that would have made it possible for the prosecutors to exact apologies and retractions from people merely suspected of having committed the “scanadalizing” offence.

In addition to blogging about this, I co-wrote (with Edward Willis) a submission to the Justice Committee of Parliament, which studied the bill. Dr. Willis and I were joined by a number of scholars from across New Zealand. We also presented our views to the Committee in person (we come in at ca. -1:04:07). Our submission recommended that the offence of “scandalizing the court” be abolished, but it also set out alternative provisions that could have ameliorated the worst abuses of the original bill, should the Committee have been inclined to preserve the offence. Of course, our submission was not the only one (though not all the submissions were directed at the issues that interested us).

The Committee delivered its unanimous report last week, and I am happy to say that the expanded offence and created in the original bill is now gone, as are, mostly, the novel enforcement mechanisms. The common law offence, as it now stands, remains, if I understand correctly. (Subclause 29(2) of the Bill provides that “[n]othing in [it] limits or affects any authority or power of a court … to punish any person for contempt of court in any circumstances to which [the Bill] does not apply”, which I think would encompass the contempt of “scandalizing the court”.) There is also a provision, a new Clause 25, allowing the High Court to order a person “to take down, or disable public access to” “a false statement about a Judge or court [such that] there is a real risk that the statement could undermine public confidence in the independence, integrity, impartiality, or authority of the judiciary or a court”. An interim order can be made on a showing of an “arguable case”, but a final order requires the government to prove the falsity of the statement concerned on a balance of probabilities.

This is not perfect. It would have been better for the offence of “scandalizing the court” to have been abolished altogether. And while, in this second-best of all possible second-best worlds, take-down orders for information which has actually been shown to be false (with the burden of proof, albeit the civil one, being on the government) are not the biggest freedom of expression concern there is, I’m also not a fan of the low threshold for the making of interim orders. Still, much worse has been averted.

As Andrew Geddis ― one of the scholars who have joined Dr. Willis’ and my submission ― has put it,

the system works as you would hope it does. A well intentioned, but overly punative, proposed legislative measure is identified and criticised by those with some expertise in the matter, with MPs having time to reflect and recommend changes in response.

The system has, indeed, worked remarkably well in this case, though when we say “the system”, we should also give credit to the individual members of the Justice Committee. We should also, however, recognize that this is a technical bill of a sort that neither triggers any strong partisan reactions nor makes for good political point-scoring. As Professor Geddis explains, the system isn’t working nearly well enough with the gun control legislation being currently rammed through the New Zealand Parliament; nor did it work especially well in the case of a recent bill to ban some offshore drilling, about which I have written elsewhere.

Professor Geddis also points out that, while the Justice Committee has recognized that it is wrong to punish people for expressing unpleasant opinions about the judiciary, or to make them apologize for it, the New Zealand House of Representatives still takes a different view where it is itself concerned:

 Basically, saying rude things about an MP (even true rude things about an MP) can be regarded as a contempt by the House and punished accordingly.

And what can the House do in response to some contempt? Well, it can censure the person responsible. It can fine them up to $1000. It can imprison them for a period up until the next election. And … it can require that they apologise to an MP and to the House itself for committing a contempt.

This power is still used from time to time ― and not just against MPs, but against members of the public too. So there is still some way to go before the evil of compelled apologies is banished from the land. But the Justice Committee has, at least, taken a stand against allowing it to fester.

And I would like to think that, in some small part, this is because I raised hell, and encouraged others to raise hell with me. And of course others still engaged in their own hell-raising activities with which I had nothing to do. Some people, it appears, are not fans of this blog’s rabble-rousing ways. That’s their right, of course. But if the rabble is of the right kind, it can help do great things. As Boris Vian told us, en protestant/quand il est encore temps/on peut finir/par obtenir/des ménagements ― by protesting while there is still time one could end up getting some concessions.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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