In general, courts are open to the public to attend, but filming in the court was strictly forbidden without express court permission.
There has been the odd example of filming in court – like Gordon Wood’s successful appeal when his murder conviction was overturned in front of the camera.
Examples have, however, been few and far between.
But this month, the NSW government passed a new law, the Courts Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Judgments) Bill 2014 to change this.
While the new Act doesn’t mean that just anyone can turn up to court with a camera, it means that we are likely to see more televised judgments in the near future.
The media will still need to get permission each time they want to film in the courtroom, but there is now a presumption in favour of allowing the cameras into final court proceedings.
The UK lifted it’s ban on filming inside the courtroom last year, and now NSW is the first state in Australia to have a presumption in favour of filming the end of court cases.
Trial by media is still a concern in high profile cases, but the new laws will not cause issues here.
At the moment, the law only applies to verdicts and sentencing in the Supreme and District courts.
Since the cameras are only allowed at these final stages of the court proceedings, there won’t be the danger of unfair media coverage that could prejudice the outcome.
Are there any exceptions to these rules?
There are four exclusionary grounds which the court may use to refuse permission to film:
- If the broadcast would likely reveal the identity of a person if this disclosure is normally prohibited.
- If the judgment itself contains any material that is the subject of a suppression or non-publication order, or may be prejudicial in other criminal proceedings, or will reveal the existence of a covert operation carried out by law enforcement officials
- If the broadcast would pose a risk of safety to anyone present in the room or anyone who has been a participant in the proceedings any other way. This could include jury members, protected witnesses and victims.
- If the Chief Judge believes that such a broadcast would be detrimental to the orderly administration of the court.
This new law will not apply when the courts are closed to the public or any proceedings under the Bail Act.
Some types of cases are closed off entirely – not open either to the general public and sometimes also the media. Closed court is sometimes referred to as ‘in camera.’
Some sexual assault trials, or parts of these trials, are closed to the public. This includes incest cases, or ones relating to children, which must be held entirely in camera.
In relation to other types of sexual assault trials, the court has discretion to decide which parts (or all) should be heard in a closed court.
Media organisations that report on sexual cases are not permitted to publish the names of complainants, or other information which may identify them. This may in some circumstances involve obscuring the identity of the accused person.
Brad Hazzard hopes that the new law will encourage more open justice.
The move may signal a positive step towards demystifying the courtroom, but the move might not actually make that much of a difference in practical terms when it comes to enhancing open justice.
Those who are expecting a radically different change to reporting may be disappointed, at least according to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Thomas Bathurst.
The Chief Justice mentions that cameras have already been allowed in courts from time to time.
He states the new laws should be carried out in a way that ensured that the defendants were not humiliated or the victims and their families were not exposed to additional stress.
Perhaps these new laws are the first step towards fully televised trials, like in the USA – but would this be a good move?