Open Courts and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2019 | Speaking on a Bill

Ms VAGHELA (Western Metropolitan) (15:14:34): I too rise to speak on the Open Courts and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2019. This bill is the first stage of the Andrews Labor government’s response to the recommendations that were made by former Court of Appeal judge in the Supreme Court, the Honourable Frank Vincent, who after the independent review, made recommendations regarding the Open Courts Act 2013. Through this bill the Andrews Labor government will reform Victoria’s law relating to open justice. This will lead to openness and transparency in our legal system. Open justice is a fundamental principle of Victoria’s legal system. It is essential to public confidence in our legal system. For our society to flourish it is vital to promote integrity and accountability of judicial officers. It is also integral for us to enable and protect those who are involved in our justice system. We recently saw the live streaming of the sentencing of George Pell. That is an example of how court broadcasting can facilitate the public understanding of how court proceedings work and also how sentencing works. The public has a right to know what is happening in our courts. The public also has a right to know if someone has been given a fair trial and if the trial is in accordance with the law. If someone is found guilty, the public needs to know that the person is being held accountable for their conduct. Open justice ensures that those perpetrators are answerable for their offences. It is also critical to let people who are victims of sexual violence crimes tell their story so that they are able to say openly and freely what they suffered. For some people, for some victims, telling their story could be an important part of their recovery process. It could also be much-needed closure. For the victims it can be frustrating to be stopped from speaking about what they have endured and what they have suffered. Having said that, we are aware that there are some situations where publishing information about a court case can be unfair or risk harming victims or other parties. In these circumstances restrictions on what can be published may be appropriate. This bill is crucial to improving the suppression order regime in Victoria. It is the first step in delivering the government’s commitment to reforming the Victorian justice system to protect and promote the principle of open justice. The Open Courts Act 2013 currently only contains general presumptions in favour of disclosing information and holding hearings in open court. These provisions do not adequately emphasise the importance of transparency in our legal system. The bill will amend the Open Courts Act to make clear that suppression and closed court orders are exceptions, based on necessity, to the principle of open justice. This will serve as a reminder to the courts and tribunals that they need to recognise and promote the principle of open justice when deciding whether to make a suppression or closed-court order. This bill is expected to reduce the number of suppression orders made by Victorian courts and tribunals. This will happen through implementing the key changes recommended by the review. Currently the Open Courts Act does not require courts and tribunals to give any reason as to why they made the suppression order. Recommendation 6 of the review recommends that Victorian courts and tribunals will have to give a reason in writing for making each suppression order and that these reasons may be made publicly available. This will bring more rigour to the making of suppression orders and give the community greater confidence in the workings of the legal system. The Open Courts and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2019 implements in full or in part seven of the recommendations of the Open Courts Act review. The Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 prohibits the publication of the convictions of young offenders who are convicted in the Children’s Court. This is due to young people getting an opportunity for rehabilitation so that they avoid the stigma of long-lasting labels and being known as criminals. But there is little reason to prevent the community from knowing the juvenile convictions of hardened offenders who continue to commit serious crimes when they become adults. The bill will amend the Children, Youth and Families Act to give the County Court and the Supreme Court a discretion to publish relevant juvenile convictions when sentencing an adult offender. Once published by the court, the information about the adult offender’s juvenile convictions may be included in the media. Courts will only be able to publish this information where there is sufficient similarity between the juvenile offence and the adult offence and where the adult offending is serious. The terms ‘serious’ and ‘sufficiently similar’ are not defined in the legislation, so the court can take all relevant matters into account when making a decision. Consistent with the recommendation of the Open Courts Act review, a court deciding whether to publish the juvenile convictions of an adult offender will also need to consider the adult’s prospects of rehabilitation and their criminal history. This will ensure that juvenile convictions are only released where there is a ‘continuing and entrenched propensity’ to commit further crimes. The Judicial Proceedings Reports Act 1958 prohibits victims of certain sexual offences from being identified publicly. Courts may also make suppression orders under the Open Courts Act to prohibit disclosure of the victim’s identity or other information to protect victims of sexual and family violence offences. These laws can prevent victims who want to speak openly about their experiences from doing so. In some cases they have also prevented the media from identifying perpetrators. Preventing the willing victims from speaking publicly, through the media, about their experiences is inconsistent with a legal system that respects and promotes the rights of victims. The bill will amend the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act to enable courts to make an order lifting the prohibition on publishing the victim’s identity if the victim consents and there are no other reasons for the information to be concealed. The bill is the first stage of the Andrews Labor government response. Promoting open justice is not just about legislative reform, it is also about cultural change and changing the way the judicial officers, legal practitioners and parties think about suppression and where it is appropriate. There are seven recommendations implemented by this bill, which include emphasising the importance of open justice under the Open Courts Act; preventing suppression orders being made under the Open Courts Act when provisions under other legislation apply; requiring courts and tribunals to give reasons for making suppression orders under the Open Courts Act; enabling suppression orders to continue until the determination of an appeal or unless varied or revoked by the appellate court; enabling the publication of relevant juvenile convictions of persons who continue to engage in serious offending as adults, subject to certain safeguards; and enabling adult victims of sexual and family violence offences to speak more openly about their experiences. Justice Vincent was asked to review the Open Courts Act 2013 and other Victorian legislation to consider whether the current laws strike the right balance between people’s safety and privacy, fair court proceedings and the public’s right to know. I commend the bill and wish it a speedy passage through the house.