The fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression has empowered the society to form its public opinion on matters ranging from legislation and public policies to judicial decisions. In instances where the person being prosecuted in court is a public figure, everyone would want to suggest or predict the outcome of the case. However, the aggregation of the views of individuals in society on issues before the court in order to influence court rulings may not always be the best option as it has negative consequences. This piece discusses the magnitude of public opinion in a high-profile legal case.
The constitution has made provision for the enjoyment of the right to freedom of speech and expression as provided for in article 21 (1) (a). Although this right is being described as a fundamental human right, its exercise carries with it duties and is subject to restrictions as prescribed by law in the interest of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for the prevention of disclosure of information received in confidence, and for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. Therefore, free speech is not absolute.
The likelihood of people making prejudicial comments on sub judice before the court especially if the prosecuted is a public figure is very high. This is because people never get or refuse to get the big picture. Public opinions are majorly politically inclined in such circumstances and so people are willing to be partially informed so as to suggest pronouncements to the court that would favour their preferred parties involved in the case. In Republic v Nkansah, Justice Hayford Benjamin defines contempt “as a conduct that tends to bring the authority and administration of the court into disrespect or disregard and or to interfere with or prejudice parties, litigants or their witnesses.” The conduct is not limited to actions but also criticisms of judges which may undermine public confidence in the judicial system. Hence, if a comment has the potential to influence the outcome of a case, undermines the integrity of the legal process, disrespects the administration of justice, interferes with court proceedings or prejudices parties; litigants or their witnesses involved in the case, such a comment amounts to contempt of court (contempt ex facie curiae) and the “commentator”, if found guilty, shall face contempt proceedings.
Judges are opened to criticism but such criticism must be constructively made. Constructive criticism is made when we carefully evaluate all the facts and evidence to the case and compare them to court decisions. Reckless public opinion without consideration of facts and evidence and mounting unnecessary pressure on the courts may induce judges to make biased judgment just to fulfil public expectations or wishes. We must note that justice emanates from the law, facts and evidence. This is why we must allow the legal process to operate and not frustrate the duties of judges by making prejudicial comments.
At the moment, the trending high-profile legal case is the case of Gyakye Quayson. Gyakye Quayson is facing some serious charges: deceit of public office, forgery of passport or travel certificate, knowingly making a false statutory declaration, perjury and false declaration for office; related to his eligibility as a member of parliament. It is worth noting that the result of the recently organized bye election does not necessarily reflect the outcome of his trial. The court has to examine the facts and evidence to ensure that justice is served regardless of public opinion. While it is understandable that people have strong feelings about this case, it is important to remember that the legal system is designed to be impartial and to make decisions based on facts, evidence and the law.
Everyone has the right to express their opinions, but we have to remember that there are consequences to our actions and words. We can still express our views but we should do so in a way that is respectful and mindful of the legal process.
Emmanuella Amoako Kwatia