Secret Justice
'Worrying Increase In Name Suppression In "State Of Secrecy"'
The Courier-Mail 9/3/2000

Over the past ten years, Queenslanders have steadily lost their rights to access information and their is a growing trend to hold inquiries in secret and suppress names and details:

AN increasing number of criminals are having their names and crimes suppressed, posing a serious challenge to the notion of an open legal system.

Public and media access to the courts is fundamental to ensuring the system is transparent, fair and accountable.

It also serves as an important deterrent factor with offenders, particularly prominent community Leaders, aware that criminal convictions will attract substantial public interest.

But special restrictions relate to the publication of certain offences such as those involving juveniles and sexual assault cases in which naming could lead to the identification of victims.

Family Court matters are protected from public scrutiny as well as the naming or reporting of cases involving domestic violence orders.

The State Government's Child Protection Act amendments now make it an offence to identify parents or relatives who bash or torture their children.

Judges also have a discretion under Section 13a of the Penalties and Sentencing Act to suppress sentencing details in cases where offenders give evidence against other accused people.

Taken individually, many of the exemptions have valid justification. When viewed as a whole, the result is that certain criminals are given immunity from public exposure and details of their crimes hidden.

Victims of Crime spokesman Jim Parke said having open courts were a vital deterrent.

"It is also part of the penalty process and you find a significant proportion of offenders seek to have their names suppressed," he said.

Mr Parke said defence barristers realised the public naming of offenders did punish their clients and often requested it be considered in handing out a more lenient sentence.

"Naming offenders publicly is also important because it makes people aware of the identity of the offender so where appropriate they can take steps to ensure they themselves do not fall victim to them," Mr Parke said.

But he said withholding the names of offenders was often important to protect the identity of victims.

Senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology's Law School Ian Wilson said it was axiomatic that justice must be seen to be done.

"This is not to say you don't have exemptions, there are good public policy reasons which ensure exemptions must exist," he said.

NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research director Don Weatherburn said public confidence in the court system hinged on transparency.

"No one will have confidence if the courts routinely operate behind closed doors," he said.

Dr Weatherburn said the openness of the court was also important for its deterrent value.

But jurist Des Sturgess argues more should be done to protect accused people from the press. He said magistrates and judges not involved in final cases should ensure people facing charges were protected from sensational press coverage. However, such suppression orders should only be used by sentencing judges in very limited matters.