Marco Archer is asking the court to consider a committal application against Sandra Hill for breach of a court injunction issued on August 30 by Justice McMillan.
Archer is suing Hill for alleged defamation of character for a story that originally appeared on Cayman Marl Road. Whilst CMR is not permitted to republish any of the allegations or alleged defamatory comments we can say that it was during his tenure as Minister of Finance for the PPM government.
Archer claims that Hill's subsequent discussion of the matter on local talk show Straight Talk with Ruthanna and a subsequent publication amounted to a breach of the court injunction. The injunction was issued on August 30th – the same day that Hill was scheduled for her regular bi-monthly appearance on the program.
In an open court hearing today visiting Justice Owen stated that it was right to hear this matter in open court as it has a potentially criminal consequence – committal and it was also a matter of public interest. Committal means the action of sending a person to prison.
The matter was previously listed for this past Wednesday afternoon to be heard in chambers; as the original date was set for an inter-party hearing to argue the merits of continuing the injunction. However, Cayman Compass writer, Brent Fuller, objected to it being held in chambers. In his email correspondence to the court he noted that, “if there is a contempt issue, it could be considered a criminal matter and there would seem to be no reason not to hold the hearing in open court.”
Fuller went on to point out the overall significance of this case to persons in the media. He commented, “In relation to the civil matters before the court, the media, in particular, has a keen interest in attending as this case could represent a precedent-setting decision regarding local libel and defamation laws and how these are to be interpreted. We also believe the public would benefit from learning about the bounds within which the local press has to work. We believe there is significant public interest in the matter, extending far beyond a simple dispute between two parties.”
Justice Owen agreed and it was open to the public today. Several persons attended the brief hearing and sat in the gallery including some political figures and representatives from the media.
Hill had only recently obtained legal counsel, Ben Tonner QC, to represent her for this aspect of the proceedings. Justice Owen inquired about minutes of the original ex-parte proceedings that were held in chambers. However, there were no official court minutes taken but Archer's attorney indicated that he had a secretary taking notes and could have those transcribed and provided to the court. It was agreed by all that it would be a beneficial exercise and the matter was adjourned to be rescheduled for a later date.
CMR reached out to some local attorneys for comment and they indicated that this would be a rather interesting case. One who wishes to remain anonymous stated, “the fundamental issues here relating to free speech and freedom of the press are very important. Especially in light of the fact that we have very antiquated defamation and contempt laws”. Another legal professional agreed that it was quite a shame that the legislators had not modernized these laws especially in light of the more recent Bill of Rights. She clarified, “Cayman is woefully behind in some basic areas of law. Our legislators focus on financial services legislation and as a result many other (laws) fall by the wayside. They are only updated when legal challenges bring them to the forefront. Ironically, over two years ago the Law Reform Commission suggested the Defamation law be updated. Recommendations can be found here.
An interesting element of the law is that defamation can be a criminal offense. It's a hallmark of all democratic societies that defamation is not a criminal act – so this is seen as a Draconian provision in the law. There is also no maximum term for a committal sentence. A person could be incarcerated indefinitely.
CMR contacted Hill for comment and she responded with “I feel confident this case will be an educational process for all concerned. Public officials can have their actions reported upon and commentary made about those. Ultimately the court will decide the legal parameters here but I stand firm by my position that the media and general public at large cannot be unnecessarily silenced on actions of public officials.”