Last night a highly distinguished panel of experts explored whether suppression orders imposed by courts are supporting or distorting justice at our 2019 Law and You Forum.
The Hon Frank Vincent AO QC, Louise Milligan, Dr Matthew Collins AM QC and Rod Ratcliffe addressed over 140 attendees at the State Library of Victoria's Village Roadshow Theatrette, with more tuning in online to hear about the complex issues surrounding suppression.
Victoria Law Foundation Executive Director and MC Lynne Haultain opened the evening posing some tough questions to the panel and the audience: does suppression stifle democracy by keeping the work of the courts under wraps? If suppression orders are intended to reduce the risk of prejudice in trials, what does that say about attitudes to juries? And in this era of the free flow of information – is there actually any point in imposing suppression orders?
The panellists shared their diverse perspectives on suppression, having experienced it in various ways throughout their careers as journalists, judges, barristers and victim advocates.
From the journalists point of view, Louise Milligan questioned the consistency of the application of suppression orders. ‘The Cardinal [George Pell] was granted privileges that we haven't seen with other criminal defendants.’ She did however acknowledge that suppression orders are sometimes necessary in order to protect victims - something which international news outlets don't always consider in their reporting, jeopardising their effectiveness.
The Honourable Frank Vincent suggested that suppression orders reflect an inherent paternalism in the law. He explains that ‘much of our law reflects the inherited prejudices of earlier generations… these notions come from a time of an almost elitist approach to juries ’ Dr Matthew Collins supported the idea that it is time for an updated approach, suggesting that the current culture around suppression orders in Victoria was borne out of Melbourne's gangland wars, and that it was time to move past that.
Rod Ratcliffe brought the victims’ perspective – a group not always well considered in the legal process, but one suppression orders are often intended to protect. ‘Victims aren’t all the same, so whilst a suppression order can be very valuable, even victims who have become victims of similar crimes at similar levels can respond in different ways… the perspective of the individual victim for that case needs to be heard in some way.’
The panel came to a consensus that juries are generally better able to separate hearsay from fact than is reflected in the current system, so suppression orders are often unnecessary. And in an increasingly connected world, it is unrealistic to suggest that juries should consist of 'clean-slate' individuals. As Rod Ratcliffe put it, if the knowledge is unavoidable, 'we need to challenge the idea that the knowledge itself prejudices the trial.'
The full 2019 Law and You Forum is available to watch below.