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Suppression Protects the Guilty, Not the Innocent

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman MP

The judiciary's suppression of information that is of public interest is an anathema. The former British Chief Justice Lord Hewitt believed, "it is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done".

In an open, democratic society, secrecy and name suppression should only be used in situations where the innocent need to be protected from further harm. That is why the recent case of name suppression of a Christchurch businessman convicted and fined $2,500 for attempting to buy sexual favours from a twelve year old girl has been the cause of such widespread outrage.

The suppression caused three other businessmen in the Christchurch community to immediately come under a cloud of suspicion. The relentless rumour mill, fuelled by the lack of hard facts, did considerable damage to the reputation of these innocent men. As a result, the police felt obliged to issue a statement that cleared them.

The Solicitor General's appeal against name suppression was heard in the High Court. The two judges who heard the appeal rightly considered that the damage caused by the suppression far outweighed the private benefits of protecting the accused from the consequences of public shame. They believed that the public had a right to know the identity of the man who wanted to have sex with a child.

Rightly in the criminal justice system, name suppression is the exception rather than the rule. That is why it is so difficult to understand the reticence of the legal profession to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Family Court. That is especially so when it is realised that Australia opened their Family Court with great success.

Here, without open scrutiny, Family Court outcomes continue to be an indictment of fairness and justice. Decisions, made on a daily basis, rip families apart. Children are denied their right to the close contact of their mother and their father, their grandparents and extended family.

Earlier this week, when addressing a Rotary Club about this issue, a grandmother told the story of her son. He had at no time ever been a threat to his ex-wife or children. Yet he had just received a Family Court judgement that allowed him only to see his newly estranged three- and four-year-old children for one hour every fortnight. She asked how on earth a judge could expect him to maintain a strong relationship with his young children in that short time?

The answer is, of course, that he won't be able to. In the absence of any compelling reason for keeping him away from his children the only conclusion is that, yet again, there has been a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Yet my call last year to open up the Family Court was opposed by the government. As a result, the 'walking wounded', the victims of outrageously unfair and unjust rulings, remain prisoners of silence unable to share their experiences or their hurt. I believe that if their views and their judgements - not their identities, as in Australia - were in the public arena, there would be such an outcry against injustice that a public momentum for change and openness would develop.

In Australia, opening up the Family Court caused a significant reduction in child abuse. Greater openness created more public awareness of how the state child welfare agency was coping. It brought an increased public demand for better performance.

There was just one occasion last year where our child welfare agency was exposed to public scrutiny. Judge Peter Boshier allowed the televising of a Family Court sitting which featured the failure of the Department of Child, Youth and Family to place two problem youths in care. The judge warned that he would hold staff in contempt of court for any further failures to carry out court orders. He also ordered the Chief Executive to be held accountable.

The recent leaked internal reports that some CYFS branches are overworked and under-performing have caused many New Zealanders to worry about the department's performance. They know that the Minister has a propensity to sanitise information so that it looks good. If opening up the Family Court and ensuring CYFS is more openly scrutinised would produce the similar results to Australia - better performance, less child abuse, and growing public confidence - then surely it would be a sensible thing to do.

Unless there is a significant risk of increasing harm to the innocent, there is no compelling argument for secrecy in the justice system - at any level.


Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

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