Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Justice still not being seen to be done

The institutional cowardice of the Manukau police was revealed nationwide last year when they spent half-an-hour outside Navtej Singh's shop "securing the scene" while he bled to death inside.

Their cowardice was unforgiveable, and Mr Singh died of it.

And as we now hear news that every important detail of the case against Mr Singh's alleged killers has been suppressed by the judge, Justice Semi Epati, one can only conclude that in Manukau institutional cowardice is endemic.

Unfortunately the cowardice is nationwide.  In recent years New Zealand's courts have admitted TV cameras, for which our justices have patted themselves on the back for their “openness,” but at the same time they’ve more and more frequently enforced orders suppressing information about what's going on inside those courts.  Justice may be being done inside our courts (though reports suggests serious doubts on that score) but we can’t see that it’s being done.  We can see pictures, but we're frequently not allowed to know who's on trial, and what the evidence against them is.

Like a patronising parent protecting innocent children we’re given picture but no sound. We're being treated like children, with no justification for it.

Are we really that imature?  Name suppression, evidence suppression – in recent years the media has been gagged from reporting important details that would help we the people  to judge for ourselves whether justice is being done in the courts assembled in our names.

I've argued before that "It's unfortunate that our courts seem to have forgotten the crucial principle that underpins their work: that justice must not only be done must must be seen to be done. When justice is kept under wraps, all sorts of nonsense appears in the vacuum instead ... Why do the courts consider us so immature that we can't handle hearing the evidence for ourselves in media reports, instead of hearing only the nonsense that its absence has generated?"

Talking about suppression orders issued over the Emma Agnew murder back in 2007, Stephen Franks slammed this "recent fad to elevate privacy and possible embarrassment over substantive justice":

    The law around pre-trial contempt of court (and sub judice) is based on the theory that the risk of biasing judges and juries outweighs freedom of speech, including open disclosure of what is known and obtainable by insiders, or those determined to find out.
    I am not aware of any balance of evidence to support [this] fear... Indeed the attempt to treat juries like computers, cleansed of any pre-knowledge, and sheltered by evidence exclusion rules from anything a judge patronisingly considers prejudicial, turns upside down the original justification for a jury of your peers.

When justice comes with gagging orders then justice is neither being done, nor seen to be done.  It's time to urgently reconsider their popularity.

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