4 May 2016
The Supreme Court and the District Court in Queensland have released a report that examines the recording and broadcasting of court hearings. The Electronic Publication of Court Proceedings: Report - April 2016 is the result of a research and public consultation process by a committee of judges, chaired by Court of Appeal President Margaret McMurdo AC. The report reviews practices in other Australian jurisdictions and internationally. It stems from media requests to film the sentencing remarks in the trial of Brett Peter Cowan for the murder of Daniel Morcombe. No standard procedures existed in Queensland to film sentencing remarks and the Court had no Information Officer to assist in making arrangements. The delay required to make suitable arrangements was one of the reasons that the application to film the judges sentencing remarks was refused.
As a result of the reports findings, the courts will develop a pilot program for broadcasting of sentencing remarks and appeal hearings.
The research process considered public submissions and identified that most respondents were concerned about the risk that recording and broadcasting witnesses and others in court would compromise the administration of justice.
As with similar reviews in other countries, the report does not favour the introduction of broadcasting witnesses evidence. However, the option will remain open for the judge in a particular case to allow the evidence of witnesses to be broadcast, with special consideration given to the position of victims and vulnerable witnesses.
Some organisations warned that broadcasting sentencing remarks may encourage judges to delay delivering reasons that would otherwise be given once submissions concluded. This could adversely affect the efficient disposal of criminal cases and delay sentences, to the detriment of victims, offenders and the public interest. However, studies show that increased awareness of the facts of cases improves understanding and approval of the sentences that are imposed. The positive aspects of broadcasting sentencing remarks, such as aiding public understanding of, and confidence in, the sentencing process have been acknowledged. Both positive and negative consequences of recording and broadcasting sentencing remarks will be monitored in the pilot program.
The pilot program will require the development of suitable Practice Directions, logistical arrangements and guidelines to assist the judges and the media. Guidelines will address matters such as the exclusion of certain categories of cases and the location and field of view of cameras.
The decision to allow or to not allow the recording of sentencing remarks will remain the decision of the presiding judge in every case.
The report also recommends additional ways to better inform and educate the public. These include improved public and media access to court decisions, case summaries and documents to allow fair and accurate reporting. It also recommends the appointment of a Court Information Officer to assist the Supreme Court and the District Court in better informing and educating the public about the courts and the justice system. At present Queensland is the only state in mainland Australia without an information officer to assist the Supreme and District Courts. When appointed, the officer will be responsible for the development of guidelines for the recording and publication of court proceedings, after which the pilot program will begin.