By Joan Evatt
@NoFibs legal writer
May 13, 2013
The last time I entered a courtroom, nearly 28 years ago, I was so heavily pregnant I waddled rather than walked. I was a character witness for a work colleague discovered driving without a licence. On that occasion I exchanged heated words with the Prosecutor, a pompous prat with a Jimmy Edwards handlebar moustache, much to the amusement of the judge and a bunch of law undergraduates. With my last name it is always difficult to have anything to do with the law, as assumptions will be made. So it was with a certain concern mixed with caution when I decided to follow the Ashby v Slipper appeal.
I have long been frustrated by the quality of the dailies’ coverage of legal matters. My frustration was underscored by the media’s serious misunderstanding of issues and decisions at the directions hearing before Emmett J. I decided to do that ‘mother’ thing. You know: ‘If you can’t get somebody to do it right, go do it yourself and stop complaining.’
Throughout the recent hearing dates in the Ashby v Slipper appeal certain key matters constantly gnawed at my gizzards. I wanted to vent because I believe them to be of critical importance.
The media’s incompetence raised two critical issues, which are fundamental to law and the practice of law in this country, and more importantly, the effectiveness of the administration of justice.
Unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t the only one doing handstands on Wednesday trying to get my hands on the written submissions of the three parties; Harmer, Ashby and Slipper. The written submissions outline the key areas that each of the three lawyers would talk to during the two days of hearing. To not be able to read written submission at the very least means you are walking cold into a case and will find it impossibly difficult to follow.
On Thursday – day one of the hearing – I discovered David Marr who was without written submissions as well. He toddled downstairs to the Registry while I went to work on the legal representatives to see if I could acquire the submissions for perusal. To give all parties their due they had no problem with sending and giving us their submissions. For that I’m very grateful to Michael Lee SC (Ashby’s barrister), Anthony McClellan, from AMC MEDIA – (the well known Public Relations firm working for both Mr Ashby and Mr Harmer) – and to Peter Slipper’s barrister Mr Ian Neil who gave us the submissions immediately. It wasn’t until the next day that their Honours let it be known that written submission would be placed online for our access.
The judiciary and the legal fraternity cannot have it both ways when it comes to being critical of the quality of mainstream media coverage of the courts. Just as judges and lawyers have to do their homework before going into court to either hear or present a case, so does the media. For journalists to cover a case cold does the parties and the system a disservice. Is it any wonder then that the reports written by journalists with difficult deadlines become more error-prone? A journalist’s role is a critical one to a justice system where open justice prevails.
There are three principles that form part of the justice foundation stone that underpins any functioning democratic society. The first is the independence of the judiciary from interference, and especially political interference, known under the banner headline as the separation of powers; a principle enshrined in our constitution.
The other two are conjoined at the hip but always remain in permanent conflict. Each one is critically important in itself, but both are engaged in a never-ending war with each other in an attempt to gain dominance.
The first is the administration of justice, which is a concept that is about a community having a structure and a process in place for dispute resolution and dispensing justice that is fair and untainted by either corruption or other external influences such as trial by media.
The administration of justice has to be fair, just and impartial which assumes a level playing field between the parties when in the courtroom. Of course, those with bottomless pockets will always have the advantage. They can hire the stronger team. It now appears you also need to hire a Public Relations firm.
Anthony McClellan is a former journalist who runs a prestigious PR firm and golly he’s good. He’s short, engaging and he twinkles. If he says he’ll do something; he does it. It is a joy to see him work a room. He whispers in the appropriate ear when he feels the need, and spends the day massaging the message and the media.
The Ashby prepared statement before the commencement of the first day’s hearing was inspired. That was pretty much all that those of the mainstream media who were present, carried that night on television and radio. London to a brick on this was McClellan’s strategy and execution. If I was ever to be in trouble, I would want his firm. He’s one very clever bugger.
However, the question remains; does the active role of a PR firm during the process of a court case taint the process in any way through spinning their message to a media anxious for additional tidbits that help their plight?
I’ll leave this to the legal eagles to argue, but it worries me and I think is a question worthy of careful consideration by those involved in the administration of justice and those who are concerned that it remains untainted.
Of course, the tainting of the process of the administration of justice is at the core of the Rares decision in Ashby v Slipper. I’m not sure the media coverage indicates an understanding of just what that is and what its implications are. I’m pretty sure the media would never question whether their being fed, and their acceptance of, spin from a PR firm is possibly tainting the process. So why would I expect them to be concerned about the core of Rares’ decision, which finds political operatives tainted the process of the administration of justice to achieve a political outcome favourable to their cause. The Rares decision is important as no act of terrorism could do as much damage as any domestic action that effectively undermines any of the institutions that bear the burden of our democracy.
The other issue is the principle of open justice. As they say in the classics; “…justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” Well in this instance it was said by Lord Hewitt in Rex v Sussex Justices; Ex parte McCarthy which all lawyers seem to regard as a classic because His Lordship’s words are so often quoted.
Courts are public domains. With the exception of the Family and the Juvenile Courts, all courts are open to the public. This allows ordinary citizens like you and me being able to toddle into a courtroom to ensure that the court is not behaving like a ‘kangaroo’ court. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Queen of England. If you are in a case either as a party or a witness you have to appear in an open court before the public.
When the entire population of Sydney can’t get into a courtroom to see Gina Rinehart ‘s family stoush we then rely on the media to do the public oversight job for us. They become our eyes and ears in the courtroom. This is their role during a court proceeding. What you see when the media is doing their job properly, and in accordance with the law, is the open justice principle at work.
There were so few members of the mainstream media present during Ashby v Slipper appeal hearings. Given the media had pages covering the details of the case when Ashby first sued Slipper and when the case first started being heard, it’s a matter of real concern to me that there wasn’t a word in the printed version of the SMH Sat. edition the day after the hearing finished. Not one word.
If the media starts to cover a case there is an obligation on the media’s part to finish covering it, and that means both sides. Otherwise, the media is both abdicating their responsibilities as our eyes and ears, and tainting the process of the administration of justice by not being balanced in their coverage. If the media reports on one side of a legal matter, they are legally obliged to also report the other side’s case. By failing to fulfil this obligation they have under the principle of open justice, the public’s knowledge of a court case becomes distorted and the process of the administration of justice is made more vulnerable to being tainted.
Again I leave these issues to the legal powers that be but it’s worrying the hell out of me.
There is some interesting reading for those of you like-minded possums patient enough to get beyond the legal eagle jargon and distil the guts of what lawyers are trying to say.
Jim Spigelman gave a wonderful speech when he was Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court entitled ‘SEEN TO BE DONE’ a look at the principle of open justice.
Garth Nertheim wrote an article on the issue of ‘Open Justice versus Justice’ that appeared in the Adelaide Law Review. It outlines the dilemma when the two legal principles are discussed and how difficult it will always be to find the balance between the two.