POLITICAL & HIGH PROFILE


Political and High Profile Cases

While many cases progress with relative anonymity, some lead to significant press interest. When a case is widely reported in the media, an accused person can easily feel that they have less chance of a fair trial. TV and tabloid reports can be particularly intrusive, and paparazzi can often be waiting outside court and even the house of a defendant where they have decided that the case is politically significant.

The free press is a vital part of a developed society. Press reporting usually cannot be prevented. But steps can be taken to manage the process and lessen the impact of media interest on a defendant during a case. We discuss these steps here.

elder solicitor is talking to an elder client

Press involvement in justice is important, because justice must be transparent in society. However, irresponsible journalism is a problem, and it can ultimately make the life of an accused person very difficult, even if they are ultimately proven innocent.

The Court process attempts to guard against the impact of the press on proceedings. A judge warns jurors at the outset of a trial that they must not conduct their own research and must only focus on the evidence in the trial. Despite this, the reality is that it is almost inevitable that jurors will, nevertheless, become aware of some reporting in a high-profile or politically charged case. If jurors are exposed to misleading statements in the press, it follows that a jury can be prejudiced by such statements.

Can I remain anonymous during a criminal case?

The short answer to this question is probably not. There is a strong presumption in favour of the administration of justice taking place in public. Open justice is regarded as a central principle to the rule of law and this is reflected in the Criminal Procedural Rules which the Courts are required to enact. The need for public overview is considered necessary both for the deterrent effect on others and so that the public can have confidence in the Criminal Justice System by opening the process up to scrutiny.

There are some exceptions to the principle. However, these typically apply where the identification of a defendant will inevitably result in the identification of a victim who is entitled to anonymity. For example, victims of sexual offences are automatically entitled to lifelong anonymity. If it is the case that identifying the Defendant would inevitably result in the identification of such a victim, then the anonymity of the defendant can be assured.

Youth Court proceedings are a further exception to the principle. A defendant under the age of 18 will only be identified where a Court can be persuaded that there are very significant public interest grounds for doing so.

It is possible for a defendant to apply to the court for a trial to be held in private. Exceptional circumstances would be required for such a request to be granted such as clear and imminent danger to a defendant or inevitable prejudice which could not be overcome by measures during the trial process. These applications are very rarely granted. A further consideration is that where such an application is made, the press must be specifically notified of the application. The press jealously guard their right to report upon events in our criminal courts. Attempts to restrict their access, which are often based upon shaky ground to begin with, can often lead to a Streisand effect whereby a defendant can actually end up bringing upon themselves greater press interest than would ever have otherwise been the case.

The reality is that thousands of matters come before the courts on a weekly basis. Only a fraction are ever reported upon. The vast majority of defendants are well-advised to focus on the preparation of their case and to hope that their case goes under the radar when it comes to press interest.

Strategy and Client Care in Political and Sensitive Cases

There is no set technical strategy for dealing with cases which attract media attention, as any criminal case can be covered in the news. A client should be able to expect from his or her legal team that they show belief, dedication, and sensitivity. In short, a solicitor must be protective of his or her client, both in and out of court.

Each particular case must be dealt with in its own fashion. The reality is that attempts to limit the accessibility of proceedings to the press are almost always doomed to fail and may end up achieving the opposite creating a "Streisand" effect and thereby delivering the direct opposite result.

But there are strategies which can be implemented to lessen the impact of the press. It may be appropriate, for example to issue a press release to counter reports. In particularly high profile cases, decoys can be used or alternative entry points to the court. Each case turns on its own situation and the intrusion can take various forms. If you are being subjected to such interest then the key starting point is to seek free legal advice and consider instructing a lawyer who can protect you throughout the process.