Mental illness, journalism and court reporting – balancing the interests


Our book – Courts and the Media in the Digital Era – edited by Patrick Keyzer, Jane Johnston and me – will be published by Halstead Press early next year. We are in the final stages of production.

It stems from our symposium by that name we held on February 12, keynoting the Chief Justice of Queensland Paul de Jersey and News Limited chief executive John Hartigan.

We have chapters written by several speakers from that symposium as well as contributions from some other experts, including the Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s Supreme Court Oration on ‘Courts and the Media’, delivered on September 15.

My own chapter looks at the intersection between the courts, the media and mental health and includes several developments that have happened since I presented the paper in February and wrote an article for the Pacific Journalism Review, published in May. (Thanks to research assistants Kiri ten Dolle and Annabelle Cottee for helping make it possible, along with some generous funding under the Australian Government’s Mindframe National Media Initiative!)

The chapter stretches to about 8000 words (pending editor’s cuts) but I offer a summary here to whet your appetite …

The chapter considers the complex array of public interests competing in the contested terrain occupied by people with mental illness, journalists, lawyers and policy makers and illustrates via an examination of the legislation and three case studies that the ancient principle of open justice is at odds with more modern notions of privacy and a concern that media attention might be counter-productive in mental health cases.

It examines the intersection of those interests across Australia’s nine jurisdictions, where courts and parliaments have chosen to approach them in different ways, leading to a confusing cocktail of publication restrictions on the media’s reportage of matters involving citizens experiencing mental illness.

The three case studies, including a recent historic UK decision, highlight potential pitfalls that may operate to the detriment of both the media and those with mental illnesses.

The chapter concludes by foreshadowing some key areas requiring further research so that policymakers might be better informed in deciding how to minimise jurisdictional differences in an era when media outlets telling the stories of the mentally ill defy state and territory borders.

The intersection of mental health, the law and the media has had scant attention. The Mindframe project last year led to the development of a guide to the varied legislation for court reporters, hosted on the Mindframe site.

It is complicated further by varying guardianship and prisons laws and confidentiality restrictions. In summary, legislators in the various jurisdictions have found differing points of balance between the public interest in open, transparent and accountable proceedings for the involuntary treatment of psychiatric and forensic patients and their competing right to privacy. Conversely, the rights of their victims and the general community to be informed of the result of any such proceedings are also balanced differently. Of course it is not just a case of the patient’s privacy rights versus the public’s right to know.

Patients also have the important issue of their liberty at stake in such proceedings, which might well be compromised by a secret, unreportable tribunal or court process. These matters were at issue in three recent cases.

Haines case

Albert Laszlo Haines (identified in earlier proceedings as ‘AH’), now aged 52, was convicted of two counts of attempted wounding in 1986 when he tried to attack a doctor and a nurse with a machete and a knife. He had been held in high security institutions for almost a quarter of a century after being diagnosed at first with both a mental illness and a psychopathic disorder, which was later revised to a personality disorder alone. His antisocial behaviour included an incident where he armed himself with a fire extinguisher as a weapon and climbed into a roof space.

In 2009 he applied for discharge and for his appeal to be heard in public, “… so that the public could be aware of what he sees as failings in the system, especially in relation to his diagnosis”. The hospital opposed his application for a public hearing on the grounds it would adversely affect his health. In February 2011, after an initial ruling against a public hearing followed by two years of appeals, the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) upheld AH’s request for a public hearing of his appeal [AH v West London MHT [2011] UKUT 74 (AAC).].

Both judgments by the Upper Tribunal shed considerable light on the competing interests at stake in such matters. The earlier hearing had canvassed the potential adverse impact on the patient’s health from the process, with expert medical opinions varying on whether the public hearing might create ‘adverse or no publicity’ to the detriment of AH’s progress and on whether a refusal of the public hearing might be just as damaging [AH v West London MHT [2010] UKUT 264 (AAC), 46].

The appeals tribunal had first commissioned further data on the ‘practicalities and potential cost of providing a public hearing’, previous examples of applications for public hearings and their management, and practices elsewhere throughout Europe and common law nations. The default position under the tribunal’s rules was that all hearings should be held in private unless it considered ‘it is in the interest of justice for the hearing to be held in public’.

The tribunal said the ‘special factors for or against a public hearing’ were that the case was ‘out of the ordinary’, the patient had been detained in high security at public expense for more than 23 years, there had been a recent change in diagnosis and there was potentially ‘heightened public significance’.

The judgment reported that, of around 100,000 hearings over the seven years prior there had only been 10 applications for public hearings of the tribunal, of which only one had been allowed and that single opportunity had not been pursued.

The tribunal also considered the costs of a public hearing, both for Haines and future appellants.

The Mental Health Tribunal’s hearing on September 27-28, 2011 was historic because it became the first time the tribunal had sat in public and a month later it became the first time that one of its determinations had been published. Several media organisations attended and reported upon the hearing because of its unusualness and their coverage could be described as reasonably balanced and measured. The decision and its reasons attracted wide coverage on their release a week later. Family members said Haines planned to appeal the decision.

The case is instructive in that it involves a rare and comprehensive insight into the arguments for and against the publicity of such mental health proceedings and the reasons for decisions in a comparable jurisdiction to Australia’s.

‘XFJ’ case

Over the same time period a comparable case was proceeding in Australia, with significant differences in the outcomes. ‘XFJ’ was the subject of adverse tabloid media coverage, including headlines like ‘Killer allowed to drive taxis’, ‘Wife-killer cabbie’ and ‘insane killer’ after he was allowed to hold a taxi licence in Victoria, despite having stabbed his wife to death in 1990 and found not guilty by reason of insanity.

On October 11, 2011, the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria dismissed an appeal by the Director of Public Transport against a decision by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to accredit XFJ as a taxi driver. The Director of Public Transport had already decided in 2008 that XFJ had the skills and fitness to drive a taxi and would meet the ‘public care objective’ by being able to provide cab services ‘with safety, comfort and convenience’.

Despite this, the director had decided it inappropriate to accredit a taxi driver who had caused the death of another because of the risk to public confidence in the taxi industry. [See Director of Public Transport v XFJ [2011] VSCA 302; XFJ v Director of Public Transport (Occupational and Business Regulation) [2009] VCAT 96, 55; Director of Public Transport v XFJ [2011] VSCA 302.]

As Appeal Court President Justice Chris Maxwell’s leading appeal judgment explained, XFJ was an Ethiopian refugee who had been persecuted in his home country and in Egypt before arriving in Australia in 1989. The following year he had suffered a serious depressive episode and killed his wife before attempting suicide.

His 1992 murder trial found him not guilty by reason of insanity. He was a model patient and his custodial supervision order was varied to non-custodial in 1998 and it was revoked entirely in 2003 after a court found he was living in a stable relationship, had friends and support, did not require medication, was coping with the stresses of daily life, and agreed to continue seeing his psychiatrists.

Over the following eight years he had several jobs including as a kitchen-hand, an aged carer and with a charity for the homeless. He had been sole carer of his 19 month old son who had leukaemia and wanted to work as a taxi driver for the flexibility of hours.

After reviewing the relevant legislation and the medical evidence, both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal concluded there was nothing that would render XFJ unsuitable for taxi driving and that sensationalised reporting of the case was ‘not conducive to public confidence in the industry’.

The Herald and Weekly Times had attempted unsuccessfully in 2009 to have earlier VCAT and Supreme Court orders suppressing XFJ’s identity lifted [XFJ v Director of Public Transport (Occupational and Business Regulation) [2009] VCAT 96, 5-9]. Counsel for the newspaper group, Justin Quill, cited the leading cases supporting the principle of open justice as a ‘fundamental and defining principle of our legal system’ and argued the suppression orders did not fulfil the ‘hurdle of necessity’ required in the case law. But Deputy President Michael Macnamara held ‘society’s interest in rehabilitating him as a useful citizen’ overrode any rights of potential passengers to know his identity.

He concluded with the statement that the express powers given to the Supreme Court to make suppression orders demonstrated that both Parliament and the Court accepted that rehabilitation of those acquitted on grounds of mental impairment ‘is an area which may properly be exempted from the Open Justice principle’.

So here it was determined that concerns over the ongoing mental health of the patient outweighed arguments for open justice and public safety.

Marlon Noble case

A case with some parallels to the above examples, but with important differences, came to public attention in Western Australia during 2011. Indigenous man Marlon James Noble had suffered irreversible cognitive difficulties since contracting meningitis during infancy. In 2001, at the age of 19, he had been charged with sexually assaulting two minors but was found unfit to stand trial’ due to his mental impairment. While ‘mental impairment’ is not ‘mental illness’, Western Australian law handles such cases and their review under the same legislation and processes, thus offering relevance to this study. Reviews of forensic cases of both types are handled by the Mentally Impaired Accused Review Board under the Criminal Law (Mentally Impaired Defendants) Act 1996 (WA) Part 6, with that body’s reports and recommendations going to the Attorney-General. Where mental impairment is not treatable and hospitalisation is not appropriate, the alleged offender is kept in prison. This is what happened to Marlon Noble. In 2003, he was remanded in custody indefinitely and detained at Greenough Regional Prison where he remained ten years later, aged 29, without conviction. This order was pursuant to section 19(5) of the Criminal Law (Mentally Impaired Defendants) Act 1996 (WA), now titled the Criminal Law (Mentally Impaired Accused) Act 1996 (WA).

Noble’s case was taken up by the Australian Medical Association, the WA Greens and was then the subject of an ABC Radio National Law Report on March 22, 2011. Much more detail on his case became available after a report to the Minister for Corrective Services prepared by Robert Cock QC was tabled in the WA Parliament on 18 August 2011.

The Cock Report revealed the Mentally Impaired Accused Review Board had in 2006 approved a five step plan to gradually release Noble back into the community. In 2010, Noble was allowed 48 hours’ leave of absence per week with the support of the Disability Service Commission. He had owned his own house for four years and held down a job outside of prison.

However, he tested positive for amphetamines on his return from weekly release on September 3, 2010. Despite a further urine test detecting no illicit drugs, and a declaration by Noble’s support worker that she had supplied him with a Sudafed tablet, he was charged under s70(d) of the Prisons Act 1981 (WA) with the aggravated prison offence of using an illicit drug and his leave of absence was suspended.

Mr Cock dealt with the oversights in the prisons and board processes leading to this decision which delayed for six months Noble’s the chance to work towards his eventual release. Noble was returned to that graduated release program on March 25 this year.

By late 2011 the Marlon Noble case was displaying characteristics of a miscarriage of justice. As Noble’s lawyer Matthew Holgate pointed out on the ABC’s Law Report, the charges his client faced remained only allegations for the decade of his incarceration, no evidence against him had been tested, nor had he been given the opportunity to enter a plea.

All of this was reportable through a combination of open justice principles, parliamentary privilege and West Australian legislation on mental impairment forensic cases. Section 171 of the WA Criminal Procedure Act 2004 provides for open court as the default position, although courts can suppress identities, and in cases like this other restrictions related to child witnesses and sexual assaults would come into play.

The Noble case demonstrates that the closing of proceedings, the lack of identification of parties and suppression of evidence in mental health proceedings diminishes the transparency of those proceedings and can lead to the ongoing incarceration of patients in circumstances where publicity about their cases might have resulted in different outcomes. Certainly, it was the publicity factor in this case that led to the increased scrutiny and review of the patient’s plight.

The way ahead through research and review

The three case studies of different instances across different jurisdictions serve to highlight the spectrum of competing private and public interests involved in such cases. On one side of the ledger there is open justice, transparency, and the public interest in the education of the community and policy makers about mental illness generally and also about the cost and processes of mental health justice and review processes. In forensic matters, open justice also implies the right of victims and the public to follow a matter through the system, even when the accused has been found not guilty on mental health grounds. Balancing these are quite legitimate concerns about the effective treatment of mental health clients, the risks of tabloid-style sensationalising of mental illness, patient-health professional confidentiality, and the privacy of patients and those with whom they interact.

The chapter concludes by calling for some uniformity in approaches, informed by some further research into both the policymaking and into the positive and adverse impacts of open processes. I hope you find it useful when the book is published.

* Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. He tweets from @journlaw and blogs from


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2011


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2 responses to “Mental illness, journalism and court reporting – balancing the interests

  1. Pingback: Mental illness, the news media and open justice: the Australian experience | journlaw

  2. Pingback: Canadian CJ headlines ‘Courts and the Media: Challenges in the Era of Digital and Social Media’ | journlaw

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