Will the media circus make a clown of justice?

When lawyers representing murder suspect Tracie Andrews wanted to find new witnesses for their case they called a press conference.

Although unusual, the move is part of a noticeable trend. Instead of remaining aloof from the media frenzy surrounding high-profile trials, defence solicitors nowadays join the fray.

Mark Stephens, of Stephens Innocent, is well-known for presenting clients to the media in several high-profile cases, including the Taylor sisters and Greenpeace over Brent Spar.

Stephens claims that the media interest surrounding certain trials is so intense that solicitors may have no option but to give their version of events to the press. He says: “My preference is that the debate does not take place in the press and that the court gets the first bite, but in the modern world this is not realistic.

“The problem for some time now has been that the Attorney General sees fit for political reasons not to enforce contempt law, partly because he is a weak and ineffectual Attorney-General and partly because he is more of a political animal than his predecessors.

“This is combined with the problem of police reaching for their mobile phones to call Fleet Street with tip-offs and of police disciplinary regulations being broken regularly and nothing being done about it.

“When you have the police involved in media relations rather than in solving crime, lawyers have no alternative but to talk to the press.”

David McNeill at the Law Society advises members who are considering putting their client's case to the media. He said: “The advice we give is that solicitors should be extremely cautious. They need to be absolutely clear on what they are trying to achieve, that it is in the interests of their client and that they are not going to be in contempt or breach solicitors' obligations as officers of the court. If in doubt do nowt.”

But he added: “We can all be a bit precious about this. What matters to clients is not necessarily that the process of law churns smoothly, but what their neighbours and friends think. The media plays a very important role in that and legal aspects might be secondary to it.”

The Bar takes a firmer view. Barristers are forbidden to talk to the press about the facts and issues arising from a case they are involved in until it is over.

Michael Mansfield's recent suggestions that a security service was involved in a breakout of the Whitemoor prison, made after the trial collapsed because of prejudicial media coverage, were viewed by some barristers as “pretty close to the mark”.

A Bar spokesman said: “The Bar's concern is that the focus of resolving any case should remain with the court. It is not enamoured of the idea of lawyers using the media to swing outcomes and thinks it is contrary to due process and detrimental to the interests of justice.”