Sunday, February 18, 2007

Time for a court information act

The Sunday Star-Times today has a major story about the role of a multi-million dollar fraud in bringing down Provincial Finance. But reading their editorial, they had to fight very hard to get it. Despite the law allowing anyone with a "genuine and proper" interest in a case access to court records, they were initially refused, and faced obstruction from court officers even after hey had obtained a court order granting them access. The culture of secrecy long since stamped out in the public service is alive and well in the court system.

The editorial draws attention to a recent report from the Law Commission into access to court records [PDF], which recommends the enactment of a Court Information Act. This would follow the model of the Official Information Act 1982, with a presumption that records should be available unless there is good reason for withholding them, and conclusive and non-conclusive reasons for denying access. The former would mostly be a subset of existing reasons in s6 of the OIA: national security, endangering the safety of any person, or prejudicing the maintenance of the law including the right to a fair trial (an additional reason would be prejudicing the administration of justice). The non-conclusive reasons, which would be balanced against the public interest - would also be mostly a subset of those in s9 - the protection of trade secrets, privacy, information given in confidence - with the addition of clauses (partially) protecting information relating to cases before the Family Court, Youth court, and defamation, mental-health or divorce proceedings (all of which are really a subset of "privacy" anyway). Interestingly, information being subject to a court order would be placed in the latter category, rather than the former. Some general access rules relating to the stage a case is at before the courts would be set in statute, with an advisory committee of judges able to recommend more. Unlike the OIA, appeals would be to the courts rather than the Ombudsmen.

On my quick glance, its an excellent proposal which will open the justice system to public scrutiny and thereby help ensure public confidence. And I expect such legislation would have no trouble passing the current Parliament. So, why isn't it on Labour's agenda? It's not as if they're pushing anything particularly important at the moment...