Law commission reviews criminal libel

The Cayman Islands Law Reform Commission is looking at a number of changes to defamation laws in the territory, including whether criminal penalties for libel and slander should remain in current legislation. 

“There have been several defamation cases in recent times in the Cayman Islands, of recent note the action brought by the chairman of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission against former politician Joey Ebanks,” the commission stated in notes published this week.  

“In light of such cases and of the use of the Internet as an outlet for the anonymous delivery of opinions which can greatly affect a person’s reputation, the commission believes that it is timely to review the defamation laws in the Cayman Islands.”  

Human Rights Commission Chairman James Austin-Smith also recently opined that defamation laws – referring to the act of making untrue and damaging statements about another person in a public forum – should be modernized in Cayman.  

“My personal view is that criminalizing statements is a sledgehammer to crack a nut,“ Mr. Austin-Smith said. “If you’ve got the protection of the civil law, criminal libel is perhaps something that we need to move on from and probably don’t need anymore.”  

The reform commission noted it would look into a number of areas regarding defamation, including:  

The abolition of criminal libel, meaning any alleged offenses for defamation would have to be dealt with in civil court. There would also be consideration of whether libel (published defamation) and slander (spoken defamation) should be considered the same offense  

Introduction of defenses of “unintentional defamation,” in which the party making the defamatory statements might “offer amends” for unintentional damaging statements 

Whether the publication of apologies for defamatory statements should be construed as an admission of guilt in court 

Whether a “wire service” defense should be implemented. In other words, who is held liable if a news publication reports a story containing defamatory material that was initially published elsewhere 

Whether a defense of “triviality” should be included, when a person sues another over what the court considers a fairly inconsequential instance of defamation.  

In addition to the review of defamation laws, the Law Reform Commission is also looking at contempt of court rules.  

This issue largely involves the uncertainty over what Cayman Islands media outlets are allowed to report from criminal court proceedings. This can, in some cases, have a “chilling effect” on free expression and may not be compliant with human rights, according to an evaluation in March 2014 by the Law Reform Commission. 

The commission revealed this week that a Contempt of Court Bill is being reviewed.  

The commission’s discussion paper on the matter last year concluded 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.  

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