28 Nov 2022

Facebook conviction of Fiji lawyer labelled 'disproportionate'

12:01 pm on 28 November 2022
No caption

Photo: Alexander Gillespie

The guilty verdict handed to a high-profile Fijian lawyer for contempt of court charges has been described by legal professionals as disproportionate.

Richard Naidu, a long time critic of Fiji's Government, was convicted by the Suva High Court last week for a comment he made on Facebook, in which he pointed out a spelling error in a court decision.

University of Waikato international law Professor Alexander Gillespie described the ruling as heavy-handed.

"Normally, when someone brings the legal profession into disrepute, it is through a very significant type of event like a lawyer directly challenging a judge or being vulgar in court, or speaking in a very angry type of way. Something like this is minor, and it has created a disproportionate response to the lawyer," said Professor Gillespie.

The complaint was filed against Naidu, a long-time critic of Fiji's Government, by Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum on the grounds the post ridiculed the Judiciary.

However, Professor Gillespie claims the ruling is more disrespectful to the Fijian Judiciary than the error highlighted by Naidu.

"While the judiciary has a right to protect itself, the Attorney General should not be someone who was pushing disproportionate charges against lawyers because it ends up that the accident itself will do more disrepute to the judiciary and the legal system of Fiji than what the lawyer himself did," he said.

The Bar Association of India's President, Prashant Kumar, said the offence of contempt due to 'scandalising the court' is a powerful law that must be used sparingly and with scrupulous care.

Kumar said for an act to amount to contempt, it must constitute a real risk to the administration of justice.

He added that it is common around the world, particularly in jurisdictions which uphold the rule of law, for bar members to make a humourous comment about the court.

The Law Association for Asia and the Pacific has also waded in, calling the judgment unduly harsh.

LawAsia said the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers require States to ensure that lawyers are not subject to intimidation, harassment or interference and are not threatened with prosecution in the performance of professional duties, standards and ethics.

The organisation said Sayed-Khaiyum must restore respect for the rule of law, move the court to set aside the conviction, and take no further steps against Naidu.

The matter will be presented in the Suva High Court on January 5 for mitigation and sentencing.