Saturday, 17 October 2009

Trafigura: The Sequel

I commented on the Trafigura affair in my earlier article Trafigura: Oil and law don't mix.

According to BBC reports, Trafigura through their solicitors Carter Ruck have released the Guardian from the injunction precluding them reporting on the preliminary report into the disposal of oil residues around the Ivory Coast which had apparently been procured by Trafigura from a technical adviser. A number of copies of the report (the "Minton report") are now on the web. Now that the preliminary report is open to the public, I can see that I was wrong to refer to disposal at sea. The residues referred to in the report and about which a dispute about responsibility arises were disposed of to coastal landfill sites around the Ivory Coast.

I have also now dug out a copy of the Parliamentary question against which the High Court issued a secret gagging injunction. It was thus:
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.
Possibly one could just about take the view that releasing the Minton report might be prejudicial to the legal action they are thought to have brought for defamation against a broadcaster (although I doubt it - see further below), but it is astonishing that a judge of the High Court thought this innocuous PQ was such a threat to the judicial process that he or she needed to gag it, and gag it secretly. Probably not only astonishing, but also an outrage, given the public interest in openness in the administration of justice.

As I mentioned in my earlier article, the sub-judice principle rightly makes it a contempt of court to publish material in active proceedings likely to prejudice the fair disposal of those proceedings, and the principle is most commonly thought of in terms of criminal proceedings, although it also applies, as in the Trafigura case, to civil proceedings. The two main areas of prejudice which might arise from newspaper reports is prejudice to witnesses and prejudice to jurors. Given that the Minton report is a technical scientific report which would be the subject of expert evidence at any trial, and expert witnesses are first professionals and secondly would read the Minton report themselves in preparing their own evidence, it is unlikely that release of the report now could affect witnesses in the defamation action. Normally civil cases do not involve juries, which is why the sub-judice principle bears less heavily on them in comparison to criminal cases, but defamation proceedings are one of the two remaining classes of civil trial in which a jury may be requested to determine matters of fact. However, given that the Minton report would be compellable in civil proceedings (Trafigura could be required to produce it to the defendants and thus to the jury), any obvious substantial prejudice would be difficult to find.

But how could the PQ, which only names but does not extract the Minton report, be prejudicial? Possibly it might make it easier to find an illicit copy on the web by means of a Google search, but a knowledgeable searcher could equally well have searched on "Trafigura Ivory Coast oil report", and found it were an illicit copy available. It is ridiculous.

There are worrying indications that the High Court issues secret gagging injunctions without reasonable inquiry. Incidentally, I note that the BBC report says that "the legal firm Carter Ruck has written to the Guardian saying the paper should regard itself as 'released forthwith' from any reporting restrictions", but this is an order of the court not an order of Carter Ruck. This reduces the court to acting as mere agents of any applicant firm of solicitors who happen to produce an affidavit saying they fear prejudice.

If we had a written constitution then we would more clearly know that secret gagging orders should only be issued where there is such a compelling and exceptional case in the interests of justice to limit public knowledge of the case as to outweigh the public interest in the open and transparent administration of justice. If the courts have got into the habit of issuing secret gagging orders like confetti, they should step back, realise that there are constitutional issues at stake, and stop. If legislative intervention is necessary to secure this, Parliament should get to work on it. There is nothing, after all, party political in this.

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