Open justice

8.53     Open justice is one of the fundamental attributes of a fair trial.[72] That the administration of justice must take place in open court is a ‘fundamental rule of the common law’.[73] The High Court has said that ‘the rationale of the open court principle is that court proceedings should be subjected to public and professional scrutiny, and courts will not act contrary to the principle save in exceptional circumstances’.[74]

8.54     In Russell v Russell,Gibbs J said that it is the ‘ordinary rule’ of courts of Australia that their proceedings shall be conducted ‘publicly and in open view’—without public scrutiny, ‘abuses may flourish undetected’. Gibbs J went on to say:

Further, the public administration of justice tends to maintain confidence in the integrity and independence of the courts. The fact that courts of law are held openly and not in secret is an essential aspect of their character. It distinguishes their activities from those of administrative officials, for ‘publicity is the authentic hall-mark of judicial as distinct from administrative procedure’. To require a court invariably to sit in closed court is to alter the nature of the court.[75]

8.55     The principle of open justice finds some protection in the principle of legality. French CJ has said that ‘a statute which affects the open-court principle, even on a discretionary basis, should generally be construed, where constructional choices are open, so as to minimise its intrusion upon that principle’.[76]

8.56     Jason Bosland and Ashleigh Bagnall have written that this ‘longstanding common law principle manifests itself in three substantive ways’:

[F]irst, proceedings are conducted in ‘open court’; second, information and evidence presented in court is communicated publicly to those present in the court; and, third, nothing is to be done to discourage the making of fair and accurate reports of judicial proceedings conducted in open court, including by the media. This includes reporting the names of the parties as well as the evidence given during the course of proceedings.[77]

8.57     That the media is entitled to report on court proceedings is ‘a corollary of the right of access to the court by members of the public’, and therefore ‘[n]othing should be done to discourage fair and accurate reporting of proceedings’.[78]

Limitations on open justice

8.58     The principle of open justice is not absolute, and limits on the open justice principle have long been recognised by the common law, particularly where it is ‘necessary to secure the proper administration of justice’ or where it is otherwise in the public interest.[79]

8.59     In Russell v Russell, Gibbs J said that there are ‘established exceptions to the general rule that judicial proceedings shall be conducted in public; and the category of such exceptions is not closed to the Parliament’.[80] His Honour went on to say that ‘the need to maintain secrecy or confidentiality, or the interests of privacy or delicacy, may in some cases be thought to render it desirable for a matter, or part of it, to be held in closed court’.[81]

8.60     The common law has recognised a number of cases in which the principle of open justice may be limited in some circumstances, for example, to protect: secret technical processes; an anticipated breach of confidence; the name of a blackmailer’s victim; the name of a police informant or the identity of an undercover police officer; and national security.[82] French CJ has said that the categories of case are not closed, but they ‘will not lightly be extended’.[83]

8.61     In John Fairfax Group v Local Court of New South Wales, Kirby P said:

The common justification for these special exceptions is a reminder that the open administration of justice serves the interests of society and is not an absolute end in itself. If the very openness of court proceedings would destroy the attainment of justice in the particular case (as by vindicating the activities of the blackmailer) or discourages its attainment in cases generally (as by frightening off blackmail victims or informers) or would derogate from even more urgent considerations of public interest (as by endangering national security) the rule of openness must be modified to meet the exigencies of a particular case.[84]

8.62     Exceptions are provided for in international law. Article 14.1 of the ICCPR provides, in part:

The press and the public may be excluded from all or part of a trial for reasons of morals, public order (ordre public) or national security in a democratic society, or when the interest of the private lives of the parties so requires, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice; but any judgement rendered in a criminal case or in a suit at law shall be made public except where the interest of juvenile persons otherwise requires or the proceedings concern matrimonial disputes or the guardianship of children.[85]

8.63     Among other common law powers to limit open justice, courts may in some circumstances conduct proceedings in camera and make suppression orders.[86] Such powers are also provided for in Commonwealth statutes. There are a range of such laws, including those that concern:

  • the general powers of the courts;

  • national security; and

  • witness protection.

General powers of the courts

8.64     Federal courts have express statutory powers to make suppression orders and non-publication orders.[87] Section 37AE of the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 (Cth), for example, provides that ‘in deciding whether to make a suppression order or non-publication order, the Court must take into account that a primary objective of the administration of justice is to safeguard the public interest in open justice’.[88]

8.65     Section 37AG sets out the grounds for making a suppression or non-publication order:

(a)     the order is necessary to prevent prejudice to the proper administration of justice;

(b)     the order is necessary to prevent prejudice to the interests of the Commonwealth or a State or Territory in relation to national or international security;

(c)     the order is necessary to protect the safety of any person;

(d)     the order is necessary to avoid causing undue distress or embarrassment to a party to or witness in a criminal proceeding involving an offence of a sexual nature (including an act of indecency).[89]

8.66     These grounds are reflected in other statutes, discussed below, that concern limits on open justice.

8.67     Under s 17(4) of the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 (Cth), the Federal Court may exclude members of the public where it is satisfied that this would be in the interests of justice.

8.68     These provisions will have a relatively limited effect on criminal trials, given that criminal trials are rarely heard in federal courts, although in 2009 the Federal Court was given jurisdiction to deal with indictable cartel offences.[90]

National security

8.69     A number of provisions limit open justice for national security reasons. For example, sch 1 s 93.2 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) (Criminal Code) provides that a court may exclude the public from a hearing or make a suppression order, if it is ‘satisfied that it is in the interest of the security or defence of the Commonwealth’.[91]

8.70     Similar provisions include s 85B of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) and s 31(1) of the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 (Cth), although the relevant proviso reads: if ‘satisfied that such a course is expedient in the interest of the defence of the Commonwealth’.[92]

8.71     In making orders under these provisions, courts may consider the principles of open justiceand the need to provide a fair trial.[93] In R v Lodhi, McClellan CJ at CL said:

Neither the Crimes Act or the Criminal Code expressly acknowledges the principle of open justice or a fair trial. However, by the use of the word ‘may’ the Court is given a discretion as to whether to make an order. Accordingly, the Court must determine whether the relevant interest of the security of the Commonwealth is present and, after considering the principle of open justice and the objective of providing the accused with a fair trial, determine whether, balancing all of these matters, protective orders should be made.[94]

8.72     Under s 127(4) of the Service and Execution of Process Act 1992 (Cth), a court may direct that a proceeding to which the section applies, which concerns matters of state, is to be held in camera. Suppression orders can be made under s 96.

8.73     Section 40 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987 (Cth) concerns closing courts and making suppression orders to prevent the disclosure of information related to nuclear weapons and other such material.

8.74     The National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 (Cth) (NSI Act)aims to prevent the disclosure of information in federal criminal and civil proceedings where the disclosure is likely to prejudice national security.[95] The NSI Act’s interference with the principle of full disclosure is discussed later in this chapter. Limits on disclosure affect open justice, but open justice may be more directly affected by the closed hearing provisions in the Act.[96] Further, the court may exclude both the defendant and their lawyer from these hearings, if the lawyer does not have an appropriate security clearance.[97] These procedures have been criticised.[98]

Witness protection

8.75     The other major ground for limiting open justice is to protect certain witnesses, particularly children and other vulnerable witnesses.

8.76     In the Federal Court, all witnesses in ‘indictable primary proceedings’ may be protected (not just those involved in criminal proceedings involving a sexual offence). Under s 23HC(1)(a) of the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 (Cth), the Court may make such orders as it thinks appropriate in the circumstances to protect witnesses.[99] However, although the Federal Court has been given jurisdiction to hear indictable cartel offences,[100] criminal trials are otherwise rarely heard in federal courts.

8.77     Under s 28 of the Witness Protection Act 1994 (Cth), courts must hold certain parts of proceedings in private and make suppression orders when required to protect people in the National Witness Protection Program. However, it will not make such orders if ‘it considers that it is not in the interests of justice’.[101]

8.78     Similarly, law enforcement ‘operatives’ are given some protection under s 15MK(1) of the Crimes Act, which permits a court to make orders suppressing information if it ‘considers it necessary or desirable to protect the identity of the operative for whom [a witness identity protection certificate] is given or to prevent disclosure of where the operative lives’.

8.79     The courts may exclude members of the public from a proceeding where a vulnerable witness is giving evidence under s 15YP of the Crimes Act. Depending on the proceedings, this may include children (for sexual and child pornography offences) and all people for slavery, slavery-like and human trafficking offences.[102]

8.80     The court may also make such orders for a ‘special witness’. The court may declare a person to be a special witness ‘if satisfied that the person is unlikely to be able to satisfactorily give evidence in the ordinary manner because of: (a) a disability; or (b) intimidation, distress or emotional trauma arising from: (i) the person’s age, cultural background or relationship to a party to the proceeding; or (ii) the nature of the evidence; or (iii) some other relevant factor’.[103]

8.81     It is an offence under s 15YR(1) of the Crimes Act to publish, without leave, information which identifies certain children and vulnerable adults or ‘is likely to lead to the vulnerable person being identified’.

Other laws

8.82     Other non-criminal Commonwealth statutes that may limit open justice, often to protect children and other vulnerable people, include:

  • Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) s 121—offence to publish an account of proceedings under the Act that identifies a party to the proceedings or a witness or certain others;

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth)—court can order that proceedings occur in camera if it is in the interests of justice and the interests of ‘Aboriginal tradition’;[104]

  • Migration Act 1958 (Cth) s 91X—the names of applicants for protection visas are not to be published by federal courts;

  • Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988 (Cth) s 110X provides for an offence of publishing an account of proceedings, under certain parts of the Act, that identifies a party to the proceedings or a witness or certain others; and

  • Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 (Cth) ss 35(2), 35AA.

8.83     This chapter focuses on criminal trials, but laws that limit open justice and other fair trial rights in civil trials also warrant careful justification.