Guild of Editors claims Howard Bill will place new 'gag' on press

NEWSPAPER lawyers have slammed clauses in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill restricting report- age of trials as “new fetters upon open justice”.

In a letter to Home Secretary Michael Howard, lawyers for the Guild of Editors say that proposed new court order powers carrying criminal penalties will “gag” the press by “more and more complex and frequently unworkable rules”.

The guild, which represents regional newspaper editors, is concerned about the behaviour of defence lawyers who cast slurs on third parties – including victims – in their pleas in mitigation or appeals against sentence.

Prosecution counsel did not intervene as often as they should, said Santha Rasaiah, senior lawyer at the Newspaper Society, the body which represents the regional newspaper industry.

Newspapers may report such speeches by lawyers, which are protected by privilege. Third parties, who may be upset by unsubstantiated allegations, have no right of reply in court.

While wishing to counter lawyers' allegations in a newspaper court report, newspapers are severely hampered by the lack of privilege which leaves them open to actions for defamation and contempt.

Instead of supporting editors' long-established call for third parties to have a right of reply in court, the Government has opted for a proposal by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice which prevents newspapers from reporting the speeches in mitigation.

“It is disturbing that the Government seeks to curb reporting and penalise the media, rather than seeking better regulation of the conduct of proceedings or adopting a solution which would respect the principle of open justice,” the guild told Howard.

Consultation on the Bill had also been inadequate, said the guild.