Category Archives: open justice

Why the public isn’t allowed to know specifics about the George Pell case #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

File 20180320 31614 7icnee.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
George Pell emerges from court during his committal hearing on historical sexual offences.
AAP/Stefan Postles

Mark Pearson, Griffith University

Many Australians are left perplexed when media coverage of high-profile criminal cases is suddenly suspended or abbreviated “for legal reasons”. The current committal hearing of Catholic Cardinal George Pell on historical sexual offences engages the principle of “open justice” and some of its most important exceptions.

Coverage of such matters is restricted at various stages of criminal trials. This is because of the relative priority the courts and lawmakers have assigned to the principles of open justice and the administration of justice, and the competing rights of free expression, privacy and a fair trial.

What is ‘open justice’?

The principle of open justice dates back to at least the 12th century; it involves people’s access to observe the goings-on in a courtroom. It was later extended to the media as “the eyes and ears of the public” in court.

Australia’s High Court has ruled that open justice is of constitutional significance, and nothing should be done to discourage the media from publishing fair and accurate reports of what occurs in the courtroom. But, it added, the principle is not absolute.

An open court involving fair and accurate media coverage is thus the default position for Australian courts. The common law recognises only a limited number of well-defined exceptions. Lawmakers have developed hundreds more.

One important common law limitation is in the area of sub judice contempt. This puts a halt to prejudicial coverage of a criminal matter from the moment an accused is arrested or charged right through until the appeal period has expired.

Important restrictions here are upon any suggestion an accused might be guilty (or innocent), coverage of contested evidence that may or may not be put to a jury, coverage of earlier proceedings (such as preliminary hearings and royal commissions), interviews with key witnesses, details of any confessions, the criminal history or character evidence about the accused, and visual identification of the accused if that might be at issue in a trial.

Specific restrictions on court cases

Legislation in all Australian jurisdictions has placed a litany of further restrictions on attendance at – and reporting on – a host of situations. These include family law cases, juvenile cases, mental health proceedings and – most relevant here – sexual matters.

The statutory gags forcing closure of courts, banning of coverage, and de-identifying of parties vary in important ways. This is because lawmakers have placed a differing emphasis on the competing rights and interests.

For example, if Pell was facing his committal hearing in South Australia or Queensland, he could not even be identified until after he is committed to trial – if that eventuates.

Lawmakers in those states have decided the reputational damage attached to an allegation of a serious sexual offence is so damaging that an accused person should not be identifiable until it is proven there is at least a prima facie case to answer at trial.

In Victoria, where Pell’s committal hearing is taking place, the accused can usually be identified. However, other restrictions apply either under legislation or in suppression orders issued by a presiding judge or magistrate.

In no Australian jurisdiction can the victim (known as the “complainant”) be identified – directly or indirectly – in sexual matters. But the laws vary on whether they might be identified after proceedings with their permission or the court’s permission.

This means complainants who might have been identified in earlier coverage or proceedings are suddenly rendered anonymous from the moment the matter is “pending” – after the arrest or charging of a suspect.

Special protections apply to complainants during committal hearings involving sexual offences. This includes closing the court while victims give evidence.

A complex array of policy issues inform these kinds of restrictions. These include the perceived vulnerability of victims, their privacy, and the important likelihood that victims might not come forward to bring charges of this nature if they sense they might be in the media spotlight.

Do we need a rethink in the digital age?

Victoria has had more than its share of journalists and others falling foul of court restrictions through defiance or ignorance of the law.

Former journalist and blogger (now senator) Derryn Hinch has twice been jailed as a result of contemptuous coverage – once in 1987 for broadcasting prejudicial talkback radio programs about a former priest facing child molestation charges, and again in 2013 after refusing to pay a A$100,000 fine for blogging the prior convictions of Jill Meagher’s accused killer in breach of a suppression order.


Read more:
You wouldn’t read about it: Adrian Bayley rape trials expose flaw in suppression orders


Two ABC journalists were convicted of identifying a rape victim in radio broadcasts in 2007. They and their employer were later ordered to pay her $234,190 in damages in a civil suit for the invasion of her privacy among other injuries.

In 2017, Yahoo!7 was fined $300,000 for contempt after it published social media material about a victim and the accused. The publication forced the jury in a murder trial to be discharged.

Many of the restrictions on coverage are problematic in the digital era. Mainstream media are more likely to be charged with sub judice contempt than social media users because the large audiences of mainstream media mean their prejudicial coverage is more likely to reach potential jurors.

The cross-jurisdictional nature of digital publishing also renders journalists and social media users subject to the tangled web of restrictions on criminal justice reporting when covering a criminal matter from another state.

Court orders to take down earlier reportage on websites are typically futile, because online dissemination is so widespread. So, the bizarre situation exists where the prior character evidence and coverage of earlier proceedings still sits online for anyone to access with a simple search of an accused’s name.

This is problematic if a rogue juror decides to become a cyber Sherlock Holmes. It means we require better training of jurors.


Read more:
Trial by social media: why we need to properly educate juries


Suppression orders are also a problem because these are typically circulated only to mainstream media in the trial’s immediate vicinity. This leaves others blissfully unaware of the orders. Some orders – known as “super injunctions” – are so secret that even publication of the fact they have been issued is prohibited.

Victoria’s Open Courts Act was meant to reduce the number of suppression orders and inject an element of consistency to the issuing of these. However, it has been problematic.

The ConversationAt least the media are better assisted in the modern era. Court information officers help explain the various restrictions and keep the media well briefed in high-profile trials – as they have done in Victoria during Pell’s committal hearing.

Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Griffith University

© Mark Pearson 2018

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.

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Filed under contempt of court, media law, national security, open justice, sub judice, terrorism

Contempt in the face of the court is no laughing matter – usually #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

The ancient charge of ‘contempt in the face of the court’ is alive and well, as I have found in the research for the next edition of our text The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (with Mark Polden).

Almost any behaviour that disrupts the courtroom can be considered a ‘contempt in the face of the court’ – a charge directed at behaviour in the actual courtroom that interferes with the administration of justice. The Australian Law Reform Commission (1987: 3) defined ‘contempt in the face of the court’ as:

Improper behaviour in court. Anything done to interrupt significantly the smooth and appropriately dignified hearing of a case in a courtroom risks being treated as contempt and punished accordingly.

Examples have included outright physical assaults in the courtroom, verbal abuse, inappropriate dress, sleeping and even attempting to release laughing gas into the court building.

Two recent examples have included:

  • The Indigenous laughing case (2017). An Aboriginal land rights activist was jailed for two hours after defying a Gympie magistrate by laughing at him in the courtroom. Gary Tomlinson (also known as “Wit-boooka”) had challenged the authority of the court to hear public nuisance and trespass offences related to a protest at Gympie Regional Council.
  • NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). A homeless man, self-described genius and would-be mayoral candidate who continuously insulted court officers interrupted the judge, and disrobed in court was twice jailed for contempt in the face of the court in 2016 and 2017. His appeals failed against his total of five months’ contempt sentence and alleged bias by the judge.

Given that both cases involved citizens who appeared outside of the mainstream of society, it is worth monitoring future cases to assess whether the charge is being disproportionately used against vulnerable, alienated, outspoken or disenfranchised individuals.

Journalists and bloggers are warned to show respect in the courtroom. This extends beyond paying attention to the proceedings, remaining clothed and avoiding throwing projectiles at the magistrate.

Indigenous laughing case, 2017. Gorrie, A. (18 December 2017). UPDATE: Gympie activist serves two hours for contempt. Gympie Times <https://www.gympietimes.com.au/news/update-gympie-activist-serves-two-hours-for-contem/3293365/>

NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). Jenkins v Whittington [2017] NTSC 65. < https://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/nt/NTSC/2017/65.html>

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

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.

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Filed under contempt of court, media law, national security, open justice, terrorism

Reporting upon forensic mental health cases and identifying patients

By MARK PEARSON

What are the key policy factors influencing courts and tribunals attempting to balance open justice against other rights and interests in newsworthy cases involving forensic mental health patients? 

Associate Professor Tom Morton from UTS, ABC lawyer Hugh Bennett and I examined this question – and the related issue of whether the media could report upon such cases and identify the patients involved – in our recent article in the leading journal in the field, the Journal of Media Law.

Citation: Mark Pearson, Tom Morton & Hugh Bennett (2017): ‘Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice’, Journal of Media Law, DOI: 10.1080/17577632.2017.1375261

Here is our conclusion:

Open justice in mental health proceedings need not be viewed in a vacuum. There are strong parallels with numerous other situations where the legislature and the courts find and apply exceptions to the open justice principle. There is much scope for consistency across Australian jurisdictions and across the many situations where the restrictions are in place because of different vulnerabilities faced by key participants in the court process – mental health patients, children, sexual crime victims, family law parties, protected witnesses and, in two Australian states, even those accused of sexual offences until after the committal stage of proceedings.

There is a strong argument that the courts should be most transparent when the public gaze is so sharply focussed upon them, and that public education about the workings of the justice system in the important area of mental health will be most effective when citizens are intrigued by a particular story and know its background. The courts might acknowledge that in some circumstances a story can be both “interesting to the public” and “in the public interest” – and that perhaps the two notions might not have to be mutually exclusive as Lord Wilberforce so famously suggested.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.

We compared four forensic mental health cases in Australia and the UK and highlighted some of the key competing rights and interests at stake when the news media or other parties seek to have mental health proceedings opened and to identify the patients involved. The approaches of the tribunals and courts we  studied showed the competing policy considerations in such applications were by no means clear-cut. They varied markedly from case to case with regards to the potential impact on the patient and other stakeholders and in their respective public interest value in the stories being told to broader communities. Policies around publicity are complicated when expert psychiatric opinion varies on the potential impact on the mental health and treatment regime for the patient.

The weighing of such important rights and interests is not a precise science where a pre-set formula will apply. Of course, important differences between Australian and UK jurisdictions inform such decisions, including different statutory frameworks for the particular tribunals, together with the lack of a formal human rights framework in Australia, comparable with the European Convention on Human Rights, which affords privacy and free expression rights. In Australia, these considerations draw upon the common law, because there is as yet no actionable tort of privacy invasion and free expression is limited to a High Court-designed implied constitutional freedom of communication with respect to “discussion of government and political matters”. Further, the various mental health tribunals dealing with applications from or regarding forensic patients operate within their own statutory frameworks, rules and practice directions which sometimes bind, and in other circumstances guide, their decisions on whether hearings can be held in public and, if so, whether parties and other participants might be identified.

In Australia alone, the nine jurisdictions have taken a variety of approaches to whether such hearings are held in public and whether parties must be anonymised in any reporting permitted. Open justice can be viewed as a policy continuum, ranging from closed hearings and a total ban on reporting at one end through to open hearings with full identification of parties allowed as part of a fair and accurate report of proceedings at the other. Somewhere in between are attempts to strike a balance between open justice and competing rights and interests with partial permissions; where the public or the media might be admitted to proceedings with a range of conditions placed upon the extent of identification of parties or witnesses allowed.

We developed  this list of key policy factors elicited from the cases reviewed, influencing whether a forensic patient or former patient might be given a public hearing or be identified in proceedings:

  1. Specific legislation, regulations, rules and practice directions relating to privacy and anonymity in hearings involving forensic patients or former patients;

  2. Whether there is informed consent from the patient to identification and publicity of his or her case;

  3. The extent to which a public trial and/or identification impacts upon on the life (ECHR Article 2), ill-treatment (ECHR Article 3), liberty (ECHR Article 5), and other rights, dignity and self respect of patients; including the impact of publicity and identification on their mental health and well being, ongoing treatment, safety and ease of re-entry to the community after treatment/rehabilitation;

  4. The impact of a public hearing or identification upon the right to privacy (ECHR Article 8) of the patient and other participants, and the confidentiality of personal medical details;

  5. The historic principle of open justice (ECHR Article 6): fundamental principles of transparency and justice ‘being seen to be done’, as espoused in Scott v. Scott; the public interest in transparency of mental health processes and proceedings;

  6. Freedom of expression and communication (ECHR Article 10); including the freedom of expression of the media, patients and other participants like hospital and prison personnel;

  7. The public’s right to know: public understanding of the mental health system and its treatment of patients; the public interest in knowing the outcome of highly publicised or emblematic cases; the public interest in knowing of wrongdoing in the mental health system; and the public interest in the safety and security of their communities;  

  8. Impact of identification and publicity upon other parties, including hospital staff, other patients, victims and their families;

  9. Public administration costs (economic and organisational) associated with implementing effective systems of publicity and identification. (For example, hospitals’ and courts’ management of media inquiries, extra costs of security for patient, special accommodation for public hearings, expense of installing video links etc);

  10. Stage of the process – for example, publicity and identification might be allowed on early applications related to conditions while institutionalised, but perhaps refused when re-entry to society is imminent or has already passed;

  11. The track record of the applicant media organisation/s in prior coverage and ethical management of privacy and consent issues, in this and perhaps in other comparable cases; the nature of the proposed program or publication and whether it is likely to be of a professional standard, balanced, accurate, reflective of a range of stakeholder views and sensitive to the patient’s experiences; and the context and focus of the identification of the patient in the media output;

  12. Whether a public hearing and/or identification of a patient might risk stigmatising mental illness.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.


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 2017

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Filed under blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, courts, free expression, journalism, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, mental health, open justice, Press freedom, social media, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice

By MARK PEARSON

Our article comparing Australian and UK restrictions on the reporting of forensic mental health cases has appeared in the leading journal in the field, the Journal of Media Law.

Citation: Mark Pearson, Tom Morton & Hugh Bennett (2017): ‘Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice’, Journal of Media Law, DOI: 10.1080/17577632.2017.1375261

Here is our abstract:

Media reportage about forensic mental health cases raises several competing rights and interests, including the public interest in open justice; a patient’s right to privacy, treatment and recovery; the public’s right to know about mental health tribunal processes; and victims’ and citizens’ interests in learning the longer term consequences of a publicised serious unlawful act. This article details a case study of successful applications for permission to identify a forensic mental health patient in both a radio documentary and in research blogs and scholarly works in Australia. It compares the authors’ experience in this case with three other cases in Australia and the UK, and identifies and weighs the competing policy issues and principles courts or tribunals consider when attempting to balance open justice with the rights and interests of a range of stakeholders in forensic mental health cases where the news media and/or patients are seeking publicity and/or identification.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.

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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 2017

Leave a comment

Filed under blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, courts, free expression, journalism, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, mental health, open justice, Press freedom, social media, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized