Second Reading debate: Open Courts and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2019

Extracted from Hansard
22 March 2019

Second Reading debate: Open Courts and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2019

I rise to make some brief comments on this bill, which I note is the same as the bill that was introduced during the last Parliament. I will keep my comments brief, as much of what I can talk about has already been said very articulately by my colleagues the member for Caulfield and the member for Gippsland East.

This bill is to amend the Open Courts Act 2013 to emphasise the presumption and importance of the principle of open justice, the free disclosure of information and transparent court proceedings. It will require courts and tribunals to provide a statement of reasons for suppression orders. Basically the bill says that suppression orders should be the exception, not the norm. I note that the opposition will not be opposing this bill, but it is reasonable to assume that open justice does mean exactly that—open justice.

During my consultation on this bill I sought comment from a reporter from within my region who has some 20 years experience working in the field of reporting on the courts’ work. I wanted to speak on this bill mainly to put on record the thoughts they have shared with me about the current system and also to take the time to thank them for sharing those experiences with me.

The journalist’s first comment when asked about these changes was that the Open Courts Act is one of the most abused pieces of legislation ever written. Whilst I am not making a reflection on the courts or the judiciary, I must admit I found it a little concerning to hear that in 2017 Victoria represented 52  per cent of the national total of suppression orders made and that in media circles Victoria is well known as the suppression state.

It is very clear the objectives of the 2013 act are not being implemented in line with the Parliament’s intention, so these amendments go some way to strengthening open justice principles. However, you do have to question if they actually do go far enough. I note in her second reading the Attorney-General said this is the first step to greater changes which are needed, as seen by the recent publicity around the trial of George Pell. While publication of a guilty verdict was supressed in Australia, the information was readily available on the internet, because the news was produced overseas, and of course was available in Victoria through social media and online news.

While there were valid reasons for supressing the information in that case—so as to not influence a jury in a later trial—local media not being able to publish while online outlets were just demonstrated that there was inconsistency and that the act is not working.

I am pleased the Attorney-General has recognised the anomaly around online and international news and the difficulty of enforcing contempt-of-court law cases and suppression orders. I hope the government acts swiftly on this matter as it is one that does need to be addressed I think as a matter of urgency to keep up with the modern, changing society that we now live in.

I will, however, again point out this bill was introduced in the 58th Parliament in August of last year and failed to make its way through the Parliament. You do have to question the government’s priorities on these matters, and we can only hope that the next steps the Attorney-General speaks about in her second-reading speech are much faster in coming before the house.

Back to the feedback I sought for the bill, the journalist that I mentioned earlier says right now it is extremely rare for any notice to be given of suppression orders as per the legislation. The journalist went on to say that on countless occasions they have argued with judges and magistrates about suppression orders. They have outlined how they planned to write the stories and have even offered to show the judges and magistrates drafts, which I am told is not a normal practice for journalists. But still suppression orders were put in place which the journalist said were unnecessary and simply protected the identity of the perpetrator. The journalist said that the changes outlined in the bill would go some way, but only if judges and magistrates apply the law as intended. They point out that up until now that has not actually happened.

There are clear cases where suppression orders are needed and necessary, but I am happy to see these changes that will allow victims of sexual and family violence to be identified in an effort to give them the power to tell their stories. This of course has appropriate restrictions, being the person must be aged 18 years, they provide their consent and there is no other reason the information should be suppressed. For some people, being able to take ownership of their story and control how it is told is important and part of the healing process. It can be an important tool in an effort to end the stigma, particularly around family violence, and help drive cultural change.

All in all these changes are a good first step. They aim to hold offenders publicly accountable for their crimes I do hope these changes will see a reduction in the number of suppression orders so Victoria can lose the tag of the suppression state and our justice system can be seen as open and transparent by victims and the general public.