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					MEDIA ACCESS TO COURTS

    DOCUMENTS AND WEBSITES
                       PUBLIC

 Open court principles invite the public to observe the
  legal system.
 British judges have observed that limiting media
  rights can put a brake on public access to the
  administration of justice.
 Few citizens can attend courts. Media companies
  have an interest in finding and selling stories.
                     BALANCE

 Balanced against media rights are the rights of an
  accused person to a fair trial.
 Commercial interests are also a factor.
 A former British Lord Chancellor expressed his
  concerns about the economic and market factors
  shaping the news filtering process.
                  COMMODITY

 News was a commodity, with a cash value attached,
  said Lord Irvine of Lairg.
 Associate law professor Elizabeth Handsley argued
  in 2004 that media organisations’ sense of duty had
  to coexist – sometimes uncomfortably – with the
  drive for ratings and readership.
Judging by the number
of stories written, actress
Lindsay Lohan appears
to have taken part in the
world’s most important
court case.

She was said to have
used drugs in violation
of parole conditions set
for a drink-driving
offence.




                              LINDSAY LOHAN
               BACK TO COURTS

 Earlier this month, Victorian Chief Justice Marilyn
  Warren spoke about the “news-hungry
  commentariat” which focused on sentencing results
  without looking at sentencing reasons.
 If the sentences were unpopular, judges were
  criticised, she said.
 Few outside of lawyers, academics, governments,
  appeal courts and students examined the content of
  judges’ decisions.
                    REPORTING

 Some court reports support this description.
 You get the result – if a sentencing minimum term
  first, because a prisoner might be released on parole.
 The story features a judge’s condemnation of the
  offender, and background paragraphs about the
  crime.
 If a good reporter writes the story, readers also see a
  summary of mitigating factors.
                      SUSPECTS

 More likely, you will see interviews with a list of the
  “usual suspects”, who provide their analysis of the
  penalty.
 Victims’ families are also interviewed, but they have
  a place in news stories. Crimes are not academic
  exercises – real people are affected.
                   OVERCOME

 Some media outlets have given a little more
  information to audiences.
 Hyperlinks to judgments or sentences give the public
  a chance to see the reasons.
 News web pages can publish long stories about big
  cases. More chance to see details.
 Members of the commentariat can do their jobs by
  reading the court decision first before hitting the
  keyboard.
                   SIDE ISSUES

 Other side issues are the encroachment of public
  relations into the legal system, and the demands of
  broadcast and online journalism for interviews
  and/or video footage outside court.
 Not to mention deadlines. Daily and hourly
  deadlines don’t count any more. Get the bare facts in
  as quick as you can – that’s the game.
                   IMPORTANT

 The previous issues show why it’s important for good
  journalists to obtain information from courts.
 They want copies of decisions so they can write
  stories quickly, report the reasons and provide them
  to the public.
 Statements of claim, transcripts and appeal papers
  let reporters tell audiences about claims made while
  cases are continuing.
                COURT WEBSITES

 Court and tribunal websites can be useful
  information sources.
 They vary greatly in the amount and types of
  information provided.
 Increasingly, they are good places to start, especially
  for those pressed for time.
 Still, the best advice for young journalists is to turn
  up. You can obtain hard copies of decisions, meet the
  players, watch what is happening.
                  THREE SITES


 The Federal Court operates Australia-wide. It
  provides decisions swiftly, and is very organised in
  its media dealings.
 The Victorian Supreme Court is innovative in its
  media approach, and leads other legal websites in
  the state.
 VCAT, the Victorian Civil and Administrative
  Tribunal, is a huge body which might be described as
  having an eccentric media policy.
                FEDERAL COURT

 Its website, www.fedcourt.gov.au. says the court
  covers diverse areas of the law. Immigration,
  copyright, discrimination, trade practices and appeal
  functions are part of its duties.
 Media stories from the court’s Victorian building
  have included environmental injunctions, attempts
  to discover ASIO security assessments and a
  swinger’s discrimination claim.
                    DECISIONS

 Federal Court decisions are posted promptly.
 Ironically, the latest on the website yesterday
  (September 29) concerned open court principles in
  the case of David Jones publicist Kirsty Fraser-Kirk,
  who is suing over alleged sexual harassment.
 Justice Geoffrey Flick refused an application by other
  plaintiffs to keep their names confidential. According
  to AAP, the case is due to start on December 20.
                        DAILY

 The court’s list of recent judgments appears to be
  updated daily. Appeal court decisions are also
  available promptly.
 The court’s media officer and its associates have
  provided judgments on request. Bruce Phillips, the
  media officer, has a good track record in anticipating
  “big” cases, and helping print and broadcast media
  obtain photographs, sound and vision.
                  TRANSCRIPTS

 Forms exist on the court website letting journalists
  order transcript. It costs money – 61 cents per page
  or about $24 per half hour in preparation time.
 Court orders restricting access can delay transcript
  provision, the form says. Conditions apply, including
  the idea that no transcript is available until the fee
  has been paid.
                   DOCUMENTS

 The e-court facility lets journalists and others check
  the progress of cases via the website.
 In the Kirk-Fraser case, observers can see the names
  of the parties and their lawyers, a list of documents
  filed and copies of orders made.
 The file number is also published.
                 FILE SEARCHES

 Non-parties (including journalists) can obtain a
  number of documents from court files, provided no
  confidentiality orders have been made.
 They can get material including: an application or
  other originating process; a pleading or particulars of
  a pleading; a notice of motion or other application; a
  judgment; an order; a written submission; a notice of
  appeal; a notice of discontinuance; a notice of change
  of solicitors; and a notice of ceasing to act.
            NEED COURT ORDERS

 Unless the court allows, journalists cannot inspect
  affidavits, unsworn statements, interrogatories and
  answers to them, admissions, documents given on
  discovery, subpoenaed documents, or confidential or
  privileged material.
 Any documents not listed in these categories are off-
  limits.
 Access to documents is generally allowed, says the
  website, if the relevant parts have been admitted into
  evidence or read out in court.
                     COPYING

 The document access form says file inspection costs
  $31.00. Photocopy charges are $3.00 for each
  request, plus $1.00 for photocopying each page.
 Possibly in anticipation of complaints, the following
  paragraph is on the form. [These fees are fixed by the
  Commonwealth Government to which the Court is
  required to remit the revenue collected.]
               FRUSTRATIONS?

 One reporter claimed to have had considerable
  success when asking a number of judges to grant
  access to affidavits, and some other “restricted”
  documents.
 On the other hand the reporter is wondering whether
  to keep asking one of the judges, who to their
  memory has never granted access.
       VICTORIAN SUPREME COURT

 The website front page, at
  www.supremecourt.vic.gov.au, has a focus section
  which currently features a speech by the Chief
  Justice, and her answers to questions posed by the
  Herald Sun newspaper about the appeal process and
  judgments.
 It also contains monthly sentencing summary tables,
  which record sentences passed in criminal cases, and
  give a link to the decision.
                    DECISIONS

 Links take searchers to recent judgments in the
  Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. Other links
  show decisions going back to 1994 via the legal
  website Austlii.
 On September 29, both courts had judgments
  delivered that day in the recent decisions section.
                      CASES


 The website describes the Supreme Court as the
 state’s superior court. It hears murder and
 manslaughter, major commercial trials, deals with
 probate and personal injuries matters, and has a
 court set aside for urgent applications.
                     CONTACTS

 Journalists will go to the contacts link, which gives
  telephone numbers for judges’ associates and other
  court staff.
 Also valuable can be audio recordings of sentencing
  remarks.
 In criminal cases, journalists can obtain same-day
  access to court transcript. Otherwise, they negotiate
  a price with a provider.
                    SEARCHING

 File searches take place at the prothonotary’s office.
 Public rates are $31.10 with the correct file number
  and $49 without. Photocopying is $1.50 per page.
 The court has power to waive these fees for
  journalists.
 Otherwise, reporters can pay a search fee, and
  receive a list of the writs filed for the week. They can
  search one or two of the files for that fee.
                    BRIEFINGS

 Reporters covering commercial and other cases have
  received briefings at the start of the year about major
  cases being heard in the court.
 Anne Stanford is the court’s media officer. Prue
  Innes, who formerly worked at the Supreme Court
  for The Age, was the media officer before Anne.
 Reporters can be put on lists to receive notification
  of suppression orders made in Victorian courts.
                        VCAT

 A giant multi-purpose body, the Victorian Civil and
  Administrative Tribunal hears a wide range of cases.
 According to its website, at www.vcat.vic.gov.au, they
  include: purchase and supply of goods and services;
  discrimination; domestic building works;
  guardianship and administration disability services;
  health, privacy and mental health; legal profession
  services; residential and retail tenancies and owners;
  corporations (body corporate) and consumer credit.
                   MEDIATION

 Part of the tribunal’s work involves mediation, which
  is off-limits to the media.
 Journalists can attend hearings, but cannot identify
  parties in guardianship proceedings.
 The media guide tells journalists they cannot use
  cameras, tape recorders or mobile phones in hearing
  rooms without per mission.
 They can be used in interviews in public areas
  outside hearing rooms with the interviewee’s
  consent.
                    DECISIONS

 VCAT decisions are available online, but usually are
  posted a week or two after they are made. The most
  recent decision today was from September 21.
 Reporters contact a media officer, Mario Xuereb, at
  the Department of Justice to get quicker access.
 Decisions are not handed down at the tribunal. They
  are mailed to parties or left for collection at the
  VCAT city building.
                     EMBARGO

 It’s VCAT policy that journalists cannot receive
  judgments before the parties. But media
  organisations that have challenged suppression
  orders have been made parties to the dispute, so they
  can get around the embargo.
 Journalists, including this one, have received copies
  of decisions in the post, not online. Plans for
  decisions to posted online for media as soon as
  possible are said to be on the way.
                       QUIRK

 Another quirk of the online posting of judgments is
  that they might be added a month late, but will be
  posted under the date on which they were made.
 So, a decision made in August but posted in
  September will be added to the August list.
                 FILE SEARCHES

 Information about searching files is under the
  “Miscellaneous forms” link on the website.
 The request form says it costs $31.10 to search a file,
  $4 to see any extra files and 50 cents a page for
  photocopying.
 VCAT says it requires a minimum 24 hours to
  “prepare” a requested file or document for
  inspection, and a further 48 hours if an archives
  search is required.
                 PREPARATION

 The Department of Justice insists the presiding
  VCAT member, not the registry, releases the file.
 No explanation is available on the website about the
  sort of preparation needed to take a minimum 24
  hours to release the file.
 Provided files are not with a judge, they can be
  released promptly at the Federal and Supreme
  courts.
                      FUTURE?

 Electronic access to files is the hope of many
  journalists, but it might be some time before they
  can gain the access they want.
 Justice Warren has spoken about a weekly online
  publication containing judgment summaries, and
  audio and video streaming of court decisions.
 Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls has reportedly
  urged video streaming of cases over the internet.
 Good journalists will say: “Give us the information
  from the source and provide it now.”

				
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posted:5/16/2011
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