It is very rare indeed for the leading judge in a state to grant an exclusive interview to a media organisation. But Victoria’s Chief Justice Marilyn Warren has done just that, providing the Herald Sun with a front page splash today. The topic – s-xual assault cases. Chief Justice Warren says that the Supreme Court will take on some of these cases this year, instead of leaving them in the lower courts. She wants to show “judicial leadership”.
But why did Justice Warren choose the Herald Sun to make her announcement? Why not just put out a direction or memo to the legal profession and the judiciary to that effect?
The answer to this question seems to be that the Chief Justice, like a number of her colleagues around Australia these days, is sensitive to media campaigning on sentencing and victims. And the Herald Sun, which late last year took out of context some perfectly reasonable remarks made by one of Victoria’s most compassionate and experienced judges, Michael Kelly, and blew them up into front page news, loves to go hard on these issues.
Judge Kelly got into trouble for simply asking victims to move on with their lives, and try not to let the s-xual assault which they have endured ruin the remainder of their earthly days. These remarks got Judge Kelly into trouble with the prosecutors and last week Victoria’s new DPP Jeremy Rapke told the media he wanted judges to show more respect for victims.
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Now one way to tackle this media beat-up about victims would have been for the Chief Justice and the DPP for that matter to have simply said, well if we don’t like the sentence handed down, because it doesn’t sufficiently recognise a victim’s suffering, then we will go to the Court of Criminal Appeal.
But it would appear the Herald Sun’s campaign on the issue has hit a raw nerve with Justice Warren. No doubt the merits of her decision to grant the Herald Sun an exclusive audience will be hotly debated by the legal profession, as it should be. Justice Warren’s interview can be viewed two ways – either she has felt the heat of a media organisation and reacted, or she is concerned to protect the reputation of the judiciary in Victoria by stepping in to stop the continuation of a media vilification campaign?
It is wise to be wary of media campaigns when it comes to the justice system. For example, according to yesterday’s Herald Sun, Victoria is a “State of Rage”. The newspaper published the results of a survey of its readers and they are a frightened lot. “Victorians are fed up with the violence, drugs and alcohol abuse plaguing their state,” the Herald Sun says.
But the 2006-07 Victoria Police crime statistics paint a very different picture of Victoria indeed. Released only four months ago, the stats show that the crime rate in Victoria is 1.4 percent lower than in 2005-06, and is at the lowest rate per 100,000 population since the implementation of the current statistical measures in 1993. Street crime is no exception, according to the stats.
Now unless there has been a sudden, unexplained rapid increase in violence over the past six months, the statistics just don’t bear out the Herald Sun view of Victoria today.