A Cayman Islands magistrate Friday ordered the Caymanian Compass newspaper not to report the outcome of civil court proceedings involving a lawsuit filed by a local woman against the government.
The verbal order from Magistrate Grace Donalds came after an open Summary Court hearing in which Sandra Catron – acting on her own behalf – and crown counsel Dawn Lewis argued over whether an extension should be allowed for the crown to file a defense in response to Ms. Catron’s lawsuit.
Ms. Catron sued the government last year, seeking some $13,000 she said she was owed after teaching one of two online paralegal courses for government.
One course, for which Ms. Catron was already paid roughly $50,000 through the former Nation Building Fund, has since become the subject of a criminal investigation. Royal Cayman Islands Police arrested Ms. Catron in connection with the case, but as of press time she had not been charged with any crimes.
A reporter from the Caymanian Compass asked at the end of the hearing for clarification as to whether or not the matters discussed in Summary Court Friday, which went into specific details of criminal allegations against Ms. Catron, were reportable, given that the civil matter was being conducted at the same time as the criminal probe.
After some discussion amongst the parties involved, Magistrate Donalds stated, “In light of the ongoing criminal investigation … you, sir [referring to the Compass reporter], have been ordered not to publish the outcome of these proceedings.”
Ms. Catron stated that she would be publishing the results of the hearing on her Facebook page Friday and questioned why the press present at the court hearing should be silenced.
Magistrate Donalds said she could not prevent Ms. Catron from talking about the case, as she was one of the parties involved.
Ms. Catron said after the hearing that she was confused regarding precisely what orders the judge had given and whether the magistrate could actually order the press not to report a hearing that was conducted in open court anyway.
“Right of publication in the media guarantees some level of transparency in the courts, as well as an excellent means of educating the public about what actually occurs behind those doors,” she said. “In any event, no case should be sub judice, in my opinion, provided the reporting is of a factual matter.”
The Cayman Islands Law Reform Commission recently opined on the uncertainty over what Cayman Islands media outlets are allowed to report from criminal proceedings, stating that it can have a “chilling effect” on free expression and may not be compliant with human rights.
The commission is in the midst of a public consultation regarding contempt of court issues that began in January, with particular emphasis on how to handle new media, including social media sites and weblogs.
The commission’s discussion paper on the matter released last month concludes that changes should be made to the current “sub judice” rules, which determine when criminal matters are considered to be before the court and, therefore, have severe restrictions on what can be reported.
“We believe that the current law is unduly restrictive of the right of the media to report and comment on particular legal proceedings and may very well not be compliant with the bill of rights,” the Law Reform Commission’s position paper stated.
Any contempt of court law, the commission’s review stated, should be certain regarding the conduct that it seeks to regulate, including when and what the press is allowed to report from criminal proceedings. At the moment, there is no statutory certainty in those rules, the commission found.
“The ‘timing question’ and, in particular, determining when the law of contempt kicks in [in] relation to criminal proceedings, is a vexed one,” the commission’s review said. “What is at issue is attempting to identify the times, before which and after which, a publication, however prejudicial its content, will not be amenable to the law of contempt.”
The Law Reform Commission noted that “it is generally accepted” that the contempt of court or “sub judice period” – during which a reporting blackout would exist – starts not later than the time an individual is arrested. However, there has been some discussion that the period actually starts later, at the time the individual is charged with a crime, or even earlier when it becomes “known to the media” that police are looking for someone in connection with the crime.
“This is an area where we consider that reform is necessary, if only because there is uncertainty,” the commission’s report stated. “This uncertainty produces the so-called ‘chilling effect,’ that is, that editors are afraid to publish simply because they do not know whether or not what they are publishing will be viewed as contempt.
“If there is to be any codification in this area, the ‘timing question’ will need to be covered in any event. The reporting of [criminal court] proceedings, and, in particular, the circumstances in which a court can direct postponement of publication, could be put on a statutory footing,” the commission’s review stated.