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Secrecy of Justice in Portugal

By: Roy Whitehouse – WIS International

WITH PORTUGAL being in the world media spotlight at the moment, due to the alleged abduction of Madeleine McCann, there has been a great deal made of the Secrecy of Justice that operates in Portugal.

Basically, it means that once an issue is in the Justice system, then all information surrounding the issue cannot be divulged to anyone outside the process.

With regard to a criminal investigation, this means that the law enforcement agency carrying out the investigation cannot give any information out to the media.

This includes the name of any person they may wish to interview or any aspect of their enquiry. They cannot say what is happening to forensic examinations or the result of them. If they take someone into custody, they will not give any information out as to the identity of that person.

In the present situation, in the McCann investigation, this lack of information to the press is causing them, the press, to speculate about what is happening with the investigation.

The main reason for this secrecy is to protect the investigation, so no information can get out to any person who may be involved with the crime. Another reason is to protect the identity of anyone that is suspected or eventually charged with an offence. These details are released at a later date if and when they are found guilty.

This secrecy also includes civil cases. Although the parties involved in a litigation are named at the outset, once the papers are in the court obtaining further information can be frustrating for an investigator.

We know that A is suing B for 5,000 euros. What we cannot find out is what it was for, and when it is likely to come to trial. The legal process is so slow, a simple suing for non payment can take a few years to be finalised.  It can then be almost impossible to ascertain what the outcome was without making contact with the plaintiff.

The present situation is certainly frustrating the members of the foreign press who are camped out in Praia da Luz, the town that Madeleine has disappeared from. This lack of information is certainly new to them and they do not like it.

I am sure that many Law agencies throughout the world would welcome this situation in their own countries, as we all know there has been many an investigation ruined by press involvement or printing information that investigating officers would prefer to keep out of the public domain.

In reality, in Portugal, if the press find information that is material to the investigation they should pass it to the police, once this has been done it is then subject to the secrecy laws.

One problem about the Secrecy of Justice is that the press can run reports based on speculation about how an investigation is progressing – but the police cannot make a statement correcting their articles. This then gives the public a false image of the truth.

There is now talk in the legal and government circles to look at the secrecy issue; hopefully they will end up with a fine balance that gives certain freedom to release information and protect the innocently accused.

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