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What the Weatherston appeal judges might have said

  • June 17th, 2011

The Court of Appeal decision is clear, as Kiwiblog says – "Thank God".

 Ups too for going out of their way to commend Potter J's conduct of the trial, and their affirmation of  Weatherston's defence counsel (Greg King and Judith Ablett-Kerr) given the public hostility they had to face.

The decision nevertheless missed an opportunity. I long to see in an appeal judgment on a miscarriage challenge, or a suppression case something along the following lines:

“We observe that it will be rare indeed where we will entertain arguments to curtail rights of free speech and open justice because of a speculative risk that a court outcome is affected more by what is said outside the courtroom than what is heard in it. We judges must cease to accept without proof presumptive claims that juries are so fragile(and judges so vulnerable) to pre-trial disclosure and publicity and  biased or hostile comment that the integrity of the trials can only be assumed in a world of suppressed speech.

It is time to remind ourselves that we all come to trials with our pre-existing knowledge, experiences and preferences. Our task is to take account of that as an inevitable part of being human, and then to strive for objectivity nevertheless. It is idle to demand of our justice system that it must operate as if we are black boxes, computing the evidence and the arguments and the law solely on the data input during the trial.

Centuries of evolution of British justice's rules of procedure and of evidence have been expressly directed to counter-acting potentially prejudicial influences. There is no evidence that media or other publicity is uniquely more powerful or malign than the other pre-existing influences dealt with by the deliberate thoughtfulness of our courts.

We have confidence in our procedures, in the rules of evidence, in the respect of juries for their role, in the objectivity and rationality of judges, in the atmosphere of calm deliberation that should prevail in our courts, in the time and care taken to substantiate and to test claims and assertions and beliefs.

Attempts to suppress comment and name suppression and demands that jurors not search the web are are probably now vain. Powers enlarged to try to make them effective could someday be misused for purposes dangerous to confidence in the incorruptibility and independence of the Courts.

Accordingly  we will not be impressed by allegations of  a nebulous prejudice from intense public interest and debate. Trials should not be aborted or cases reheard in the absence of compelling evidence of actual unmerited prejudice”.

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