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Tuesday 21 January 2020
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A chance for democracy

Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay

THE DEBATE over whether there should be reform in relation to the Sedition Act has thrown into sharp relief the need for statutory bodies such as the Law Reform Commission (LRC) to function as independent mechanisms by which positive and meaningful changes are affected in our legislative landscape.

Several legal matters have brought the act into the spotlight. While such matters are before the courts or, in some cases, in nascent form, it would be inappropriate to make any pronouncements that would interfere with or exert influence upon live legal proceedings. Further, it is unacceptable for independent bodies, such as the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, to be subject to allegations of political bias and interference without evidence to suggest the same.

That said, politicians and trade unionists on all sides of the divide have already staked their claims in this matter. And several people, including prominent, independent voices, have raised concerns. All of it points to the need for an impartial body to have oversight on precisely matters like this one.

Instead of a cacophonous mass of raised voices, each disagreeing with one another, why has the LRC not been engaged to adjudicate, soberly, on this matter? According to the Law Reform Act, the commission has a duty to review the law to eliminate anomalies, repeal obsolete and unnecessary enactments, reduce the number of separate enactments, simplify and modernise all legal provisions.

For that purpose, the commission, appointed by the president, is empowered to receive and consider suggestions for reform by judges, public officials, lawyers and members of the public generally. The commission can also consult specialists who have expertise not generally available. And it should be tabling recommendations for reform every year. Is this happening?

We urge the State to consider all of these matters and call on Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to use the debate on sedition to demonstrate forward thinking when it comes to enhancing democratic governance. The prime minister is correct to defend the police for upholding the law. However, the question is now whether this specific law has any place in a free and open society.

As observed by barrister Laurence Maher, “as long as the various sedition offences remain, governments will inevitably be tempted to use them improperly, especially when highly unpopular opinions are expressed.” Such laws, according to Maher’s views set out in a 1992 paper, are anachronistic and unjustified interference.

As unsavoury as we may view language with a tendency to incite, the sedition offence cannot be viewed in a vacuum without regard for free speech and the chill effect it has.

This debate is an opportunity to deal with outmoded legislation, and to also reactivate a considered and systemic process of legal reform, as envisioned by Parliament. It presents us with a chance to deepen our democracy in more ways than one.

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