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Panpa Bulletin : September 2006
16 | PANPA BULLETIN September 2006 NEWS Many criticisms and wish- es of the Media Freedom Committee concerning access to court records appear to have been taken into account in New Zealand's Law Commiss- ion recommendations. The MFC represents the Commonwealth Press Union (New Zealand Section) editors of daily and Sunday newspapers and publishers, magazine pub- lishers and radio and television broadcasters. Submissions by the MFC to the Law Commission were domi- nated by: Criticism of the lack of access to court documents Variability of the courts' per- ception of 'open justice' The ad-hoc way suppression of name and other informa- tion orders are made and transmitted to the media, and The way some court staff app- ears to think it's more than their job is worth to co-oper- ate with the media Editors, in response to the Law Commission's earlier discussion paper, said they want a more streamlined and open approach by judges, lawyers and court staff to the promulgation of suppres- sion orders. They also want a presumption of accessibility to all documents presented to a court, especially handed-up depositions (written statements of evidence that are not read in open court but are handed to the judge, magistrate or justice of the peace). There should be no difference, the editors said, between evi- dence presented in writing and evidence given orally to court. The editors said that there should be greater use of technology to disseminate court-related infor- mation, akin to that adopted by the Supreme Court. Editors also sought an end to the "nonsense that says a re- porter must be in court if they want access to court informa- tion". They also called for greater understanding by the legislature, • • • • the judiciary and court staff of the role the media plays in a democ- racy and thus in courtrooms. The Law Commission's final report found the present rules of access to information held by the courts were not always con- sistent, clear or easy to locate. Nor were they comprehensive. And there was lack of consist- ency across jurisdictions. The Law Commission President, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, has publicly de- scribed the present situation as a "dog's breakfast". A presumption of accessibility to court information should ap- ply, the Law Commission report said when recommending en- actment of a Court Information Act. Exceptions would be where there are conclusive reasons for withholding the information. Potential exceptions would be where there are good reasons for withholding the information. The proposed Act should pro- vide specific rules of court in all jurisdictions to govern the detail of access to those records. While the Commission did not see the need for any statutory special rules applying to repre- sentatives of the media some recommendations would assist the media and help accurate reporting and free flow of infor- mation to the community con- cerning the judicial process. The Commission thought that efforts needed to be made by the court authorities to liaise satisfactorily with the media. A reporter should not have to have been physically present in the courtroom in order to obtain copies of court records that were produced or relied upon in the open hearing, the Commission recommended. Court calendars, accord- ing to the final report of the Commission should be made available online, along with deci- sions of high public importance or interest, subject to suppres- sion orders. Written material that features in open court proceedings, such as pleadings, affidavits, witness statements that have been con- firmed and stand as evidence in chief and written submis- sions, should be regarded as documents that have been read in open court. Subject to any statutory restrictions or con- fidentiality orders, the media should be given access to them once they have been produced into the court hearing, said the Commission. Justices of the Peace should be empowered to release hand-up depositions to the media, where there is no objection from the parties, the Commission recom- mended.Where there is objection to such release, or the Justices of the Peace are concerned that re- lease might prejudice a fair trial, the matter should be referred to a jury-warranted judge for decision. "There is no principled reason why, in general, the media should not have access to the hand-up depositions, without which they may be hard-pressed to make sense of the proceedings," the Commission's report said. The Law Commission report endorsed the MFC call for sup- pression orders to be urgently posted on the Ministry of Justice's website. In fraud trials and trials in- volving extensive and complex financial information stored on computers available to counsel and the judge, then accredited media should be able to apply to the court prior to the hearing for similar access to such computer screens, the Law Commission recommended. Providing online access to court calendars should be a re- source priority for development of the electronic medium for New Zealand courts and tribu- nals, said the Law Commission. Footnote: The Commonwealth Press Union is having discussions with the Ministry of Justice about an up-to-date list of suppression orders being fed to editors, pos- sibly through the New Zealand Press Association news agency, according to the CPU secretary, Lincoln Gould. NZ editors push for court access overhaul New Zealand s Law Commission looks at overhauling its freedom of information and better access for the media writes Warren Page There should be no di erence, the editors said, between evidence presented in writing and evidence given orally to court. Fairfax Photos
November December 2006