Supreme Court upholds journalist's courtroom reporting access appeal

Scales of justice (picture is illustrative).
Scales of justice (picture is illustrative). Source: SCANPIX/SAKALA/MARKO SAARM

A Supreme Court ruling has upheld an appeal by a journalist against a Tallinn Circuit Court ruling which had dismissed, in turn, an appeal against a county court motion to limit public access in a court hearing. As well as addressing transparency issues, the ruling also calls for courts and judges to consider precedent in appeal cases, and thus the substance of the complaint.

As reported on ERR News, the question of reporting from courtrooms has been the subject of controversy recently, with many reports saying that courts have been zealously using an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure that entered into force last year restricting press coverage of courtrooms.

In the current judgement it was found that, since there was an absence of case law on the provision of the original county judge's order, the circuit court was not entitled to dismiss the EPL journalist's appeal.

Sequence of events

Harju County Court had ordered the participants in a proceeding, and others persons present in the courtroom, to keep the content of personal testimonies confidential until the end of a judicial process, even though the hearing itself was not closed, in order to maintain integrity, warning that any breach of this would be punishable either by a fine or imprisonment.

The ruling was based on a provision of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which entered into force on 17 December 2018, which allows the court and other parties in the court to oblige the parties to the proceedings to keep information confidential even if the hearing is not closed, but confidentiality is required, for example, in the interests of preserving justice.

The Harju County Court ruling was contested by an Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) journalist, who constituted a person outside the proceedings, and who believed that the ruling restricts freedom of expression and press freedoms.

Tallinn Circuit Court dismissed the EPL journalist's appeal as manifestly unfounded. The journalist's representative filed a complaint with the Supreme Court seeking annulment of this latter, circuit court order, and referral of the matter to the same court for reconsideration at a different panel.

The Supreme Court then upheld the journalist's appeal. 

Supreme Court opinion

The criminal chamber at the Supreme Court is of the opinion that the circuit court should not have dismissed the appeal as "obviously unfounded".

An appeal is "obviously unfounded", for example, if its arguments are legally irrelevant, in other words if they contain in some way a request to infringe a legal prohibition.

If the applicant's claims are not legally irrelevant, i.e. not "obviously unfounded", the appeal can only be dismissed if the county court's decision is clearly and unequivocally settled by Estonian case law.

In the present case, the appeal to the Circuit Court contained pleas which could not be regarded as irrelevant and nor did the circuit court refer to settled case-law, which would allow for an unequivocal conclusion to the appeal. 

The practice of applying the provision of the Code of Criminal Procedure at issue is still in the process of being drafted, and the district court should have considered the merits of the appeal, it is reported.

The Supreme Court's judgement (in Estonian) is here.

Two recent cases where judges have directed the restriction of courtroom reporting are a corruption trial of board members of state owned Port of Tallinn, and the organized crime trial of Hubert Hirv.

At present court hearings can be declared either open or closed. For instance the recent hearing which sentenced former ski coach Mati Alaver to a suspended prison sentence and eighteen months probation period was closed. The issue more under scrutiny recently has been the extent to which judges have declared reporting on ongoing cases from inside the courtroom off-limits to the media in open hearings, rather than the existence of closed hearings.

Estonia's legal system is organized into three main tiers, with the Supreme Court obviously at the top, followed by the circuit courts and the county courts.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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