George Pell’s sentencing broadcast sparks calls for more cameras in court

Updated March 14, 2019 16:47:08

Lawyers are calling for more high-profile court hearings to be broadcast live so the public can better understand how judgments are reached, after Cardinal George Pell’s jailing was yesterday streamed to global audiences.

Key points:

  • Cameras are only allowed inside Australian courtrooms in rare circumstances
  • Pell’s sentencing hearing was broadcast live with permission from the judge
  • The Law Council said this should be the rule rather than the exception in high-profile cases

Pell was given a maximum of six years’ jail for sexually abusing two choirboys when he was Catholic archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, and his sentencing was streamed on television, radio and online.

Arthur Moses SC, the president of the Law Council of Australia, said the broadcast gave the public access to what was going on in the court, and an insight into the complex factors involved in sentencing.

“The broadcast allows the public to examine the demeanour of the judge as she or he is dealing with the matter, the tone of their voice and the carefully constructed considerations that go into delivering a judgment,” he told the ABC.

“Broadcasting the sentencing of George Pell demystifies the court process for the general public and also shows the work of our hard-working judges in action.”

The Law Institute of Victoria’s president, Stuart Webb, also tweeted his organisation’s support for the move.

In his sentencing remarks, Chief Judge Peter Kidd rejected submissions from Pell’s legal team, which objected to the broadcast on grounds that it amounted to a form of “extra-curial punishment”, or additional negative consequences resulting from the offence.

Chief Judge Kidd said: “The broadcast of these sentencing remarks therefore does not communicate anything of substance more than they would had I communicated them or delivered them orally in open court and published them in writing.”

“As the publicity will already be at saturation levels, I fail to see how the fact of the broadcast of my remarks will materially change the levels of coverage.

“On that basis, I do not consider the broadcast per se will have any material impact on the levels of publicity and your [Pell’s] experience in custody, over and above the publication of my written sentencing remarks.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the decision to allow cameras into courtrooms was a matter for judges and magistrates, but “the more of that we have access to, the better”.

“It was a 70-minute thing, it wasn’t a quick thing and all the different facts, the different competitions tensions, the challenge that Peter Kidd had had to work through — that’s his job, he’s not complaining about it, he’s just giving people that unique sense that it’s not perhaps as simple as some of us from the outside might think.”

Mr Moses said the public had a right to know how a court arrived at its decision, and unless there were exceptional reasons, broadcasting court proceedings should be the rule rather than the exception.

“In this digital age, especially in high-profile cases, judges need to examine whether this is the best way to assist in the administration of justice because the more informed the community is about the work judges do, the better confidence they will have in the court system,” Mr Moses said.

He said it was only when the courts were closed or when the public had not been privy to all of the evidence that “misinformation or miscommunication” occurred.

Former Victorian chief magistrate Nick Papas QC said media reporting of sentences could be simplistic, and live broadcasts meant the public could understand all factors.

“People can see exactly how complicated the sentencing process is, how it’s not just some whim of a judge saying ‘I think I’ll give this bloke X’,” he told 3AW.

Transparency of court process

The Supreme Court of New South Wales has been allowing sentences and civil judgements to be broadcast since late 2014.

Media can apply to film sentences and the footage is made available to all other media outlets.

The court’s position is to approve applications in the interest of transparency unless there are serious security concerns.

The Pell judgement was the first time the County Court had allowed a sentence to be broadcast live and the court said it was “committed to the principles of open justice”.

The Supreme Court of Victoria allows live streaming with a 15-second delay for selection of cases, including the Rebel Wilson court case in September last year.

The Chief Justice of Victoria, Anne Ferguson, said carefully written and considered judgements used to speak for themselves.

But in the digital age, she said, the courts needed to do more to help people understand what was going on.

“To ensure even greater accessibility and transparency, the court is also rebuilding and upgrading its in-court technology, so it has the in-built ability to broadcast proceedings from the courtroom to the website,” she said.

The court gives careful consideration to each broadcast on a case-by-case basis and consideration is given to the impact a live broadcast may have on victims, their families or witnesses.

Read more about George Pell’s conviction:

Topics: courts-and-trials, law-crime-and-justice, judges-and-legal-profession, broadcasting, information-and-communication, melbourne-3000, vic, australia

First posted March 14, 2019 09:32:19

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