Press Council encourages legal practitioners to use its efficient and free dispute mechanism

January 12th, 2023

During a one-on-one interview with De Rebus, Part-time Press Ombudsman, Herman Scholtz, said that the Press Council receives complaints from legal practitioners who are dissatisfied about items that have been published on social media or in the media about their clients. He pointed out that most of the time, such legal practitioners want to have interdicts ordered and all they want to do is sue the publication on behalf of their client. However, he said that it is not as easy, as it is expensive and time consuming. He added that the Press Council is an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, but not a lot of legal practitioners know about the Office of the Press Ombudsman and the functions that it performs and how it can help their clients, because it is quicker and free.

Legal practitioner and part-time Press Ombudsman, Herman Scholtz, said the Press Council’s dispute mechanism is efficient and free.

Some of the advantages for legal practitioners using the Press Ombudsman for their client, is that one is not –

  • constrained by strict rules and procedures as per the law of evidence;
  • one does not have to get the client to testify;
  • one does not have to make discovery, because in a lot of defamation cases the clients are unwilling to subject themselves to the scrutiny that comes with a case like that.

Mr Scholtz added that a while ago there was a requirement that if one wanted to complain to the Press Council, one needed to sign a waiver that if they use the Press Council procedure, they will not later sue the publication. However, he pointed out that this requirement has been removed, and one does not have to undertake not to use other legal remedies. He said legal practitioners can get vindication for their client, or a correction within a few days or weeks, rather than a few years as it would with litigation.

Mr Scholtz said: ‘It is important to me that legal practitioners know about the mechanism that they can use, because it is in everyone’s best interest that it is a good and efficient mechanism.’ He added that it is also in the media’s best interest as well and that is why they fully comply. He said that the Press Council is a much wider option to use than common law and that even if one fails in successfully claiming damages from a publication, one can succeed in getting an apology and a correction for their clients. He added that with that said, the Press Council applies a lot of the common law principles in their adjudication, whether a person’s privacy, dignity or reputation has been infringed, common law is applied, so that legal practitioners do not get ‘lost at sea’, if they use the Press Council’s complaints mechanism.

Mr Scholtz said that he wants the Press Council to be a trusted and credible source and for that to happen its rulings must be consistent. He pointed out that they have started to work on the body of ruling that there has been and to continuously refer to cases and to apply principles. Mr Scholtz said: ‘We do not have the rule of precedent as in the court system, but quite similar [we] try and give clarity to the media and to the public on what is acceptable and what is not and to make sure our rulings are consistent and credible.’ Mr Scholtz said the Press Council has a Public Advocate, whose role is to assist complainants to formulate complaints and to broker mediation. He added that only a fraction of complaints goes to adjudication.

However, Mr Scholtz pointed out that where the Public Advocate and legal practitioners sometimes struggle to find each other, is in the formulation of the complaints, with regards to the type of guidelines there are for legal practitioners. He added that legal practitioners should follow those guidelines.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.