BELIZE CITY, Fri. July 31, 2015–Supreme Court Justice Courtenay Abel issued his ruling on the contempt of court case filed against attorney Audrey Matura-Shepherd this morning and ruled to sanction the outspoken attorney and trade union leader with a $3,000 fine for violating the non-disclosure rules of the court’s mediation proceedings.
Following the court-connected mediation settlement of the Belize Grassroots Youth Empowerment Association (BGYEA) in late February, Matura-Shepherd gave a television interview, announcing that a settlement had been reached between her client, Nigel Petillo, the BGYEA leader, and the government’s Lands Department, which had obtained an injunction from the Supreme Court to prevent BGYEA from using a so-called buffer zone at their Harmonyville settlement.
Matura-Shepherd not only gave a television interview about the settlement, she also wrote about it in her Amandala column.
Her public pronouncements about the mediation settlement prompted attorney Julie-Ann Bradley, one of the attorneys from the government side, to file an application for contempt of court proceedings against her.
The case was heard on July 6, 2015, in the chambers of Justice Abel, where Matura-Shepherd was represented by attorney Godfrey Smith, S.C. while Deputy Solicitor General Nigel Hawke represented the government side.
In respect of Matura-Shepherd’s breach of confidentiality of the mediation process, Justice Abel said in his 15-page judgment, “…CPR 2005 (Civil Procedure Rules) expressly provided for the confidentiality of the mediation sessions in the following terms: “Discussions during the mediation and documents prepared solely for the purposes of the mediation are confidential and shall not be disclosed in any other proceedings.
“A party or attorney-at-law representing a party shall not, at any subsequent trial or hearing of the claim, refer to any matters disclosed at the mediation by any party or attorney-at-law.
“The mediator may not disclose to any other person or be required to give evidence about any matters disclosed by any party at the mediation.”
The judgment goes on to say, “Where a party, an attorney-at-law representing a party or a mediator fails to comply with any rule, order or direction under this Part or breach the confidentiality provisions of Rule 73.9, any other party, or the Mediation Coordinator, may apply to the court (supported by an affidavit) setting out the nature of the alleged failure or breach and serve a notice of the application and a copy of the affidavit on every other party. In determining any such application the court may make such order and impose such sanctions as may be appropriate, including the removal of the mediator from the Roster of Mediators.”
In respect to submissions made during the hearing, Justice Abel’s judgment said, “It was submitted by Counsel on behalf of Mrs. Matura-Shepherd, that there was indeed no confidentiality of the court-connected mediation session held under Part 73 of the RSC on the 26th February 2015, as the rules only provide for confidentiality and non-disclosure of discussions in relation to other proceedings and that Mrs. Shepherd was therefore at liberty to make any disclosures to the media in the way that she did as such disclosures were not part of confidentiality to which the rules referred.”
Justice Abel noted that counsel for Mrs. Matura-Shepherd did not produce any specific authority in support of his proposition, but relied on the clear terms of the stated rule, which, being penal would need to be clear to capture the conduct being impugned.
“Counsel for the GOB disagreed and submitted that the rules clearly provide for discussion during the mediation being confidential and that documents prepared solely for the purposes of the mediation are indeed also confidential and in addition, prohibits a party or attorney-at-law representing a party from referring to or disclosing those discussions,” he summarized.
Justice Abel, speaking in terms of the breach of confidentiality, said, “Mrs. Matura-Shepherd’s conduct suggests that she could not have looked at or have had any regard to the rules, as her conduct suggests a wanton disregard to any notion of confidentiality.”
Justice Abel, in the reading of his judgment, continued, “…such conduct even suggests a deliberate and flagrant, even contumacious flouting of such rules by such a breach of its confidentiality provision as to be unimaginable by a responsible Counsel, and an officer of the court…as it borders on contempt of this court’s connected mediation process…”
Justice Abel ended his ruling by saying that these rules are new and that there has been no ruling in this jurisdiction in connection with such a matter.
“I have decided not to assume the absolute worst and will consider in mitigation the general tenor of the defense raised and that such conduct may have resulted from lack of familiarity with the mediation rules…and the serious consequence of such breach,” he said.
“No counsel can now claim such ignorance given the present decision and ruling, and can therefore expect no such leniency in the future,” the judge went on to state.
“For the reason given above, I find that Counsel for the 1st Defendant, Mrs. Audrey Matura-Shepherd, did indeed breach the confidentiality of the court-connected mediation session held under Part 73. 16 (2) of the RSC on the 26th February 2015, and is ordered to pay, by way of sanction for such conduct, the sum of $3,000 imposed by this court,” Justice Abel concluded.
Matura-Shepherd declined to give an interview to Amandala on the outcome of the case, saying only that her attorney might be looking at appealing Justice Abel’s decision.