A matter of contempt of court or free speech?

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By Mike Jarvis

BRADES, Montserrat – A fierce and intense debate has erupted in Montserrat and its diaspora over a directive issued by the island’s High Court Registrar warning about public comments, especially on social media, on an ongoing case before the court.

It warns that “His Lordship has directed that such comment as there has been, which has been collected into a file, must now be investigated by the police and the DPP as possible contempt of court.”

The former chief minister and prominent attorney David Brandt is facing charges including and related to the alleged sexual exploitation of underage girls.

Brandt was recently re-incarcerated, in the long-running case which dates back to 2015 which has seen a range of twists, turns and legal manoeuvrings.

The trial is expected to start in November 2019; however, an edict from the presiding judge of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, has met with outrage over perceptions that it grossly infringes free speech.

Some expressions of consternation have questioned the enforceability of the directive as comments have been made not only in Montserrat but also in its extensive diaspora via social media.

This major issue in Montserrat, one of the smallest British Overseas Territories and the smallest member by population of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Supreme Court jurisdiction, brings to the fore the challenging global question about policing social media where content moderation is now a growing specialist sector.

It also highlights mounting concerns on the island about the social ills of child molestation, child safeguarding and domestic abuse.

Montserrat is still grappling with the effects of the crippling economic and social dislocation caused by a series of devastating eruptions of its Soufriere Hills volcano between 1995 and 2010.

Over half of its previous 11,000 population fled and approximately two-thirds of the island’s 39 and a half square miles was rendered uninhabitable.

Recently, Montserrat’s Premier Donaldson Romeo, berated the British government at a sitting of the United Nations Decolonisation Committee in New York, for what he said has been its inadequate response to his island’s plight.

There have been seven governments in Montserrat since the volcano crisis started and elections are due again this year.

During that period there have been five British government changes with a sixth due to take office in a matter of weeks.

UK policy towards Montserrat’s economic and social recovery has been inconsistent, to say the least.

The full statement from the Registrar is below 

“As the Registrar of the High Court on Montserrat, I have been directed by His Lordship Mr Justice Evans QC to make the following public statement.

There have been a number of comments and statements made in the press and on social media recently about the trial to take place involving David Brandt.

On Montserrat, there is a small community and David Brandt is a famous figure. It is inevitable the community will be interested in his trial, now due in November. However, all members of the public must avoid making supportive or negative public statements in the media about Mr Brandt, or disparaging statements about the trial in general. 

A person accused of any crime in this jurisdiction is not tried by things said in the press or social media, but in a court of law, with a jury drawn from the community, who must be unbiased, and that means they must be unaffected by what is said by others, which includes in the press or social media. 

This important principle of fairness applies to David Brandt as it does to every other member of the community. On Montserrat, we must all ensure that he gets a fair trial. To ensure this, there must be no further comment, either in support or against, in the press or on social media about this case. 

Any further comment will be brought to Mr Justice Evans QC’s attention for consideration of whether contempt of court proceedings are warranted. Any such proceedings will involve consideration of punishment including imprisonment.

Further and finally, His Lordship has directed that such comment as there has been, which has been collected into a file, must now be investigated by the police and the DPP as possible contempt of court.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. This same warning needs to be made all over the Caribbean, especially St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where the results of an elections petitions trial and an upcoming appeal of the verdict have been the subject of numerous slanderous and unfounded accusations of judicial corruption.

  2. Most accusations in SVG are deeply based on truth. The problem is the lawmakers, hierarchy, judiciary, and the lawyers all led by the dynasty are completely based on closet crooks. There is no doubt that every election during the last 18 years has been rigged and voters have been bribed, whilst the closet crooks steal all they can from the kitty.

  3. Again, this points to the contempt members of the court have for the public. The public’s discomfort with how our courts operate, how transparent they are or not, are a few of the things which bother the public. How else are these issues to be addressed except by open discussion? Efforts to close any discussion of the courts result in the same fungus-ridden system year after year. Open the courts up to sunlight. At least that will reduce the stench.

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