The public's fundamental right to know is being threatened by inconsistent and unnecessary procedures in many of Australia's courts, a new report has found.
A coalition of major media organisations has repeatedly voiced frustration at being denied court documents or blocked from reporting on court cases by vague and indefinite suppression orders.
The organisation, Australia's Right to Know (ARK), released its most recent publication: The Review of Suppression Orders and Access to Court Documents in Australia.
ARK, representing 12 media organisations, canvassed the views of court reporters, media lawyers, court registrars and public information officers in its 121-page report.
News Ltd chairman John Hartigan accused the legal system as being part of the problem.
"The judiciary is often critical of media reports of court proceedings," he said.
"But the issue is that reporters are being hampered in getting quick and accurate information from some courts."
Journalists are routinely denied evidence tendered in court even though state and federal laws deem the information to be in the public domain, the report's author Prue Innes said.
"There are huge interstate variations. We might only guess why this might be but we're unable to say."
Various laws already exist to protect the identity of witnesses, including sex-abuse victims, children and undercover police officers.
But legal teams on both sides apply for suppression orders for many other reasons so as not to prejudice current or future trials.
The number of suppression orders made in Australia grew from 607 in 2006 to 678 in 2007.
However, the lack of a formal register of the orders suggests the actual figures could be much higher, Ms Innes said.
ARK said according to the NSW judicial system, only nine orders were made in the first half of 2008, and all of them came out of the Supreme Court.
"There were doubtless others made but as statistics are not kept the picture is incomplete," the report said.
The majority of orders had no sunset clause and many were so vague that media organisations were limited in what they could write, it said.
The ARK report recommends suppression orders be clear, specific and with no wider scope than necessary.
Whenever possible orders should include a sunset clause so they expire automatically or should otherwise state why the order should be indefinite.
Courts that do not have a public notification system for suppression orders should establish one.
On the issue of media obtaining court exhibits, the report recommends "courts adopt a procedure based on a presumption of access" so journalists receive the requested documents promptly.
"It's not a lot of use getting stuff days or weeks out from the event," Ms Innes said.
The report also recommends trialling the use of television cameras in court cases and the use voice recorders by journalists to assist with accurate reporting.
No laws exist to prohibit such devices leaving the decision to the judge.
The ABC's managing director Mark Scott said it was time to step out of the dark ages.
"It's absurdly old-fashioned that we still have to rely on artists' sketches of defendants, and scrum for images outside court," he said.
14 Nov 2008