Police Threaten Lawyer for Telling Clients to Appeal

After a court ordered a popular web site to reveal details of an online commenter, it turned to a law firm and was told to appeal the decision – but the police took issue.

Attorney Tal Lieblich with former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner in a lawyers conference in Eilat. 2012.
Motti Kimchi

 Israel Police summoned a lawyer for questioning under caution on Thursday  because she advised her client to appeal a court order, a perfectly legal thing for a lawyer to do.

The incident began when a woman complained to the police against a certain media outlet, saying an Internet comment appended to one of the articles had done her harm. Investigators from the Jerusalem fraud squad turned to the court for an order requiring the media outlet to divulge the commenter’s home address. The court issued the order without seeking a response from the media outlet.

When the media outlet received the order, it asked the Lieblich Moser law firm, which also represents Haaretz, for advice on whether to comply or contest it. Because the order was issued at a hearing with only one side represented, contesting it is a legally valid option.

Attorney Tal Lieblich told her client that based on previous court rulings, media outlets don’t have to give such information to the police unless a comment has caused the complainant extremely serious harm, and the comment in question didn’t meet that standard. She then informed the fraud squad that her client did not want to hand over the requested information and planned to ask the courts for a stay of execution, as it is allowed to do by law.

A police investigator then told Lieblich that if the information wasn’t handed over, Lieblich herself would be summoned for questioning under caution for refusing to obey a court order.

Lieblich has been representing some of Israel’s leading media outlets for more than 25 years and is a senior partner in a firm that’s considered a leading expert on media law.

Consequently, she wasn’t intimidated by this threat, and asked to speak to the investigator’s superior. She then tried to explain to the superior why the police’s demand for the information was out of line with court precedent, why the law allows her client to contest the order and why it would be highly inappropriate to question a lawyer under caution merely for giving legal advice to her client.

However, she evidently failed to make her point: A few hours later, her office received a fax summoning her to the Jerusalem District Police to be questioned under caution for failing to obey a court order.

A junior officer can’t summon an attorney for questioning; such a summons has to be approved by the head of the investigations department at the sub-district, district or national level, depending on the circumstances. Usually, police would also consult the attorney general before issuing such a summons, but in this case, they apparently didn’t bother.

Earlier this week, police obtained another court order requiring various other media outlets to hand over material in another case. In that case, too, the order was issued with only one side represented, the media outlets refused to comply, and they criticized police for even issuing the order. Thus it’s possible that the summons to Lieblich was intended in part to pressure the media to comply in this other case.

Police said the only way to appeal such an order is via the courts, and in light of the website’s failure to either comply or appeal, it summoned the attorney for clarifications, with approval from the Jerusalem prosecution. However, the summons was postponed by a week to give the site another chance to either comply or appeal, and if it does so, the summons will be canceled.