In a media release today, the High Court announced that it will make audio-visual recordings of hearings held in its Canberra building available on its website from 1 October 2013, supplementing written transcripts of the Court’s hearings that have been published on Austlii since 1994. The videos will be made available a few days after the hearing (to allow for confidential information, such as the suppressed names of witnesses, to be edited out), but the release observes that the delay is likely to reduce as experience with the procedure increases. The new policy applies to ‘all Full Court hearings in Canberra, other than Applications for Special Leave’.
The release notes that ‘[t]he Court’s decision to take these steps was made having regard to the nature of its jurisdiction and is not intended to set any precedent for other courts’. However, it does partially follow precedents set in other top national courts. The United States Supreme Court makes audio-recordings (but not video) of its proceedings available at the end of each argument week. The United Kingdom Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Canada go further, each providing for live streaming of most of their hearings.
It seems that the first hearing eligible to be published under the new policy is the hearing a Queensland criminal appeal, PEB v The Queen. The High Court will review the adequacy of the reasons of the Queensland Court of Appeal in dismissing the defendant’s appeal against his conviction for indecent dealing with a child under 12. Given the sensitive nature of the subject-matter, and the anonymity of both the defendant and the victim (to prevent identification of the child), this will certainly be an interesting test of the Court’s new policy.
Do you think the High Court will allow Twitter in the court room, as the SA Supreme Court just did?
The present approach, according to the court website, is that: “Cameras, radios, pagers, tape players, tape recorders, mobile phones and any other electronic equipment are required to be surrendered at the door of a sitting courtroom.” However, the stated purpose of that is to stop audio and visual recordings, not text messages (including Twitter.) The new federal Court Security Act 2013 (not yet proclaimed, I think) confirms that security officers may confiscate such devices if the officer ‘reasonably suspects’ that the device ‘is being’ or ‘will be’ used to make a recording or transmission (words that appear to be limited to audio and visual recordings.) It is not clear (to me anyway) that this permits such devices to be confiscated when when someone credibly claims that they will only use the device to Tweet. However, the issue will presumably continue also continue to be governed by vague laws on contempt of court, judges’ powers to control behaviour in the courtroom and court staff’s discretion on who to let in.
Given that the policy on releasing videos of the hearings has a built-in delay to allow the censoring of sensitive information, I imagine that there will be no permission for now to tweet live from the courtroom. (The situation will surely change if the HCA follows the UK and Canadian courts in permitting live streaming.) That does still leave open the possibility of a policy like South Australia’s, which generally allows tweeting but only 30 minutes after whatever is being tweeted about. I suspect that the court may be willing to make exceptions in a high profile case in the future, for instance if the ACT same-sex marriage bill is passed and challenged in the court.
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