Law academics are divided over a proposal for courts to publish their own newspapers. But one expert says transparency of legal proceedings should go even further — with television broadcasts.

In delivering the Richard Searby Oration at Deakin University, Victoria’s Chief Justice Marilyn Warren suggested this week that the courts should publish a weekly online court newspaper to provide reasons for judge’s decisions.

Chief Justice Warren said that judges had come under increasing attack from the media and that their traditional silence needs to be broken in order to better communicate the reasoning behind their judgements.

The speech comes after Melbourne’s Herald Sun published several stories last month attacking judges for perceived leniencies in sentencing.

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“We see in the media, particularly the popular press, that judges are viewed as fair game and severely criticised more and more,” Warren said. “They (judges) are vulnerable to the news-hungry commentariat who will usually focus on the outcome, not the reasoned process to reach the outcome, then deplore the result if it is unpopular and proceed to criticise the judge.”

Andrew Kenyon, a professor of law at the Melbourne Law School, told Crikey that the Chief Justice’s comments were aimed at creating a more informed public debate.

“Over a long time frame the expectations of society have changed in what we expect from politicians and business leaders, generally there is a more open discussion of things,” Kenyon told Crikey. “The courts have a long history of believing in open justice, this could also be seen as adapting that idea to the contemporary media environment and contemporary public discussion.”

As well as suggesting a weekly online newspaper, Chief Justice Warren proposed that the courts should publish judgements with summaries, stream suitable judgements online and prepare commentaries on important judgements for newspapers. She also said there was a place for a qualified court commentator to liaise with the media and explain judgements on multimedia platforms like YouTube.

But Richard Ackland, editor of law magazine Justinian, told Crikey that an online courts newspaper would only open judges up to increased scrutiny, at a time when judges were already fearful of putting their “head above the parapet”.

“You’ve got to remember that earlier this year Chief Justice Warren made a speech declaring that ‘Judges Don’t Spin’, well, now … she is setting up a mechanism to do precisely that,” Ackland told Crikey.“I think nice little summaries of a judgement would be useful. But commentary in order to spin it in the way the court wants it — forget about it. If it does happen it won’t be a service to the courts.”

David Rolph, editor of the Sydney Law Review and a lecturer in law at Sydney University, told Crikey that he thought that any developments that fostered transparency in the courts were to be encouraged: “It’s a good starting point in looking at better ways for people to understand the administration of justice.”

Richard Ackland said that one way the courts could achieve transparency would be to allow television cameras inside the courtroom.

“If everything was videotaped it would make sure judges that were too bolshie or rude or nasty or whatever could be pulled up,” Ackland told Crikey. “It would be a terrific thing but I think she (Chief Justice Warren) has fallen short of that.”

The push for the greater use of television cameras inside courtrooms has been gathering steam recently. Western Australia’s Chief Justice Wayne Martin commented a fortnight ago that he did not see “any problem” with cameras inside courtrooms, as long as they were subject to “proper restraints”.

Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls yesterday backed Chief Justice Warren’s proposals, telling The Australian that he would welcome any efforts to make the court system more transparent.

“I have continually urged heads of court jurisdictions to embrace the media and make themselves available regularly to talk about court processes,” Hulls said.

Hulls also said he would be keen to see the online live streaming of certain court cases.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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