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Making decisions in open court

Written By : General Editor. A cornerstone of our justice system is its visibility – the notion that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.
30 May 2008 12:00

Written By : General Editor. A cornerstone of our justice system is its visibility – the notion that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. What it means is that justice must be fair to all and a means of enforcing that is to make it public to all.
The maxim has stood courts around the world in good stead over many centuries.
However, when justice is dispensed or even prepared behind closed doors questions need to be asked.
And, thankfully, those questions have been asked in the recent Connors report into the nation’s magistracy.
The report has found what many in the legal profession and many outside it have complained of for years now – chambers meetings between magistrates, accused and counsel. In effect these are secret meetings between accused people or litigants, their advisers and the magistrate. The potential for the course of justice to be perverted should be obvious.
In part of his reaction to the Connors Report, acting chief justice Anthony Gates condemns the practice of chambers hearings and insists that the courts should remain open and transparent.
Conceding that there are a few – a very few – occasions when chambers hearings are justified serves only to underline Justice Gates’s firm commitment to an open court policy.
Chambers hearings are held in secret. They cannot be reported by the media. This is sometimes necessary in cases that involve national security (which is not the same as a government’s security), the safety of a witness or where evidence is commercially sensitive. It may also be necessary in the High Court when a judge wishes to protect assessors from exposure to unsatisfactory evidence.
But, as Justice Gates has pointed out, such cases are few and far between.
What has been seen all too often in the magistrates courts have been “trials” preceded by secret meetings of the contestants as well as the referee with little more than a verdict announced in open court.
What takes place in those secret meetings is anybody’s guess – but they absolutely do not uphold the principle of justice being seen to be done.
Let’s hope the magistracy takes careful note of Justice Gates’s exhortation.
And let’s hope that Justice Connors or someone like him is asked to undertake a similar review of the High Court system.



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