Open doors, not webcams

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 12 November 2010

Victoria’s Premier John Brumby has made an unusual pledge ahead of the state election. If re-elected, his government would commit $6.3 million to installing facilities to stream Victorian court proceedings on the Internet. The public would be able to follow a selection of court cases, most of them criminal, live on the web.

At first sight, there does not seem to be a principled objection to the proposal. After all, there is widespread agreement that the judicial system should generally be operating publicly. Indeed, even Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone is entitled to have their case heard in public.

From this principle, however, it does not follow that greater courtroom audiences automatically increase the degree of justice achieved.

The principle of a public trial is one of the oldest elements of procedural justice. Its origins can be found both in Roman and Germanic law. After being partially replaced by a system of justice behind closed doors, especially in absolutist regimes, it was resurrected during the Enlightenment by legal philosophers like Cesare Beccaria.

The purpose of administering justice openly has nothing to do with educating the public about the legal system, let alone pleasing their curiosity. Its aim is to ensure that court proceedings are transparent and that judgments are not reached through obscure backroom interrogations and deals.

The reporting of court cases in official law reports and in the media serves the same idea – that justice is not done in a vacuum but in the vigilant eyes of the public.

To ensure this kind of transparency, it is not necessary to maximise audiences. It is enough that the doors to the courtroom remain open for anyone wishing to witness the proceedings.

Ironically, it is this area that needs legal reform in Victoria. Only a few months ago, former Victorian Supreme Court Justice Philip Cummins told the Melbourne Press Club that the media were excluded from the courts far too often.

Over the past five years, Victorian courts had passed not fewer than 1,500 suppression orders. In many cases, the public could not follow trial proceedings or find out about the verdicts reached.

It would be costless yet invaluable to bring this situation closer to the ideals of a liberal, enlightened system of justice. Victoria’s courts do not need built-in webcams but open doors.

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