27/06/2006 - 22:00

Make justice more accessible

27/06/2006 - 22:00

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A few months ago I found myself disagreeing with a move to gag barristers discussing their clients’ cases.

A few months ago I found myself disagreeing with a move to gag barristers discussing their clients’ cases.

That was a motion to the Western Australian Bar Association moved by Wayne Martin QC.

Whatever the merits of the move, I felt it was a restraint of trade that took the profession backwards.

Now, Mr Martin has been made WA’s 13th chief justice and I took the opportunity to read his acceptance speech, published recently in the WA Law Society’s journal, Brief.

Not surprisingly, his attention again turned to the media and its role in reporting on the justice system. Notably, his key concern appeared to be the way the media interpreted judgements.

The media, he rightly pointed out, was invariably the way most people obtained access to court decisions.

Often, he suggested, attacks on judicial decision making were made by people who had limited access to the facts – other than the selective way such matters were reported in the media.

A solution would be to make more material available directly to the public.

“For example,” he said in his speech, “it should be possible to publish on the internet the remarks made by a judge at the time of passing sentence and which explain the reasons for that sentence very soon after sentence has been imposed.

“Persons with an interest in that sentence could thereby access information which is complete and accurate, rather than being limited to the spin which might be put upon it by a media outlet or interest group anxious to promote a story.”

I could not agree more.

I have long wondered why the courts have failed to make better use of the internet. There are increasing amounts of court documentation available but it has yet to become as widespread as it could.

After all, as Mr Martin points out, it is a relatively cheap form of publishing. Significant material is readily available in digital form and could easily be made available for the public in this way.

Obviously this could help the courts fulfil that key tenet – that justice must not just be done, but must be seen to be done.

Clearly the media has a role in this and should not be shut out, but making material directly available to the public at virtually no cost is a sensible proposition.

A key point Mr Martin makes is that few people have the time to spend watching court proceedings from the public gallery.

“It therefore seems to me that if the courts are serious about doing justice in public, we must do whatever we can to provide the broadest dissemination of information about what happens in our courts subject, of course, to the protection of the integrity of the process,” he reportedly said.

Mr Martin went on to mention the potential for broadcasting proceedings via the internet, though he is cautious about this pathway.

Of course, it’s not just the public who gets access to information if the courts become more efficient at providing to all of us the material they already have internally,” he said.

The reality is that most media, just like Mr and Mrs Citizen, don’t have the resources to be in court to hear cases or judgements.

Only a few powerful media institutions have the funds to do that, so the interpretations of court matters come to all of us via a handful of commentators.

If more court material were made easily available on the internet, more journalists would be able to access it, too. This would, I think, allow the public to get a better cross section of views because, ultimately, most people still want the media to provide them with information rather than going direct.

I hope Mr Martin gets his way on this and that we see even more material available for all of us to view.

Floats a gauge of market strength

The markets have a refreshing way of keeping us all on our toes, and the past few weeks have certainly done that.

While the whole world doesn’t revolve around the stock market, it is certainly a very good indicator of what is happening in the economy as a whole – notably how much money is sloshing around for investors.

The past two weeks’ dramas were proceeded by some faltering performances, as our study of new Western Australian floats on page 12 shows.

But many think this is just a normal correction and China will underpin this state for years to come.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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