Victoria’s Chief Justice Marilyn Warren apparently frowns on the practice of lawyers speaking to the media about cases in which they are involved. Warren is not alone in holding that view. But if a brave Scottish lawyer, Aamer Anwar, wins his case in that jurisdiction’s Court of Appeal this week, then Warren and those who have her mindset might have to rethink their conservative position.

Anwar has been cited for contempt of court by a trial judge because of remarks he made to the media last September after his client was found guilty of collecting and disseminating terrorist literature in Glasgow. Anwar told the media that the verdict was “a tragedy for justice and for freedom of speech” and that the prosecution was driven by the State “in an atmosphere of hostility”. His client, he said, had been “found guilty of what millions of young people do every day, looking for answers on the internet”.

Anwar has some powerful supporters in his battle against the Scottish legal establishment and the outmoded views of one of its judges. Leading English lawyers have condemned the prosecution of Anwar for contempt and yesterday Anwar’s legal team began its battle to save their client from being disciplined for his remarks.

Paul McBride, Anwar’s lead counsel, told the court yesterday that is “a fundamental principle that court proceedings which are concluded, having been heard in public, can be fully and freely commented upon whether to compliment and praise or whether to criticise, and in my respectful submission, either expressing his own views or those of a convicted person outwith the precincts of the court does not wilfully challenge either the authority of that court or the supremacy of the law itself.”

McBride’s argument is a fundamentally important one. It recognises the reality of the 21st century – that the media and lawyers can and should talk to each other. If a lawyer wants to hold a media conference at the end, or even the beginning of a case, to set out his or her client’s views, he or she should be allowed to do so without living in fear that a judge will cite them for contempt of court.

There is much to criticise about the American style of justice, but the more relaxed attitude of the American courts to media involvement and scrutiny is not one of them. It helps the public understand the legal process better if lawyers are able to speak more freely with the media.

And lawyers ought to be able to criticise the system that tries their clients and the way the State prosecutes individuals. It will be to the Scottish legal system’s credit if Anwar wins his case. And hopefully it might persuade Marilyn Warren and others to relax their views.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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