Lifting the secrecy on suppression orders

The Marshall Liberal Government is considering removing suppression restrictions on the reporting of sexual offenders and offences.

Attorney-General, Vickie Chapman said there had been several court cases over recent years which exposed the public’s right to know an alleged offender’s identity, highlighting the necessity for our laws to be both contemporary and in line with community expectations in this important area.

“At present, where a person is charged or is about to be charged with a sexual offence, the Evidence Act automatically prohibits the publication of certain information before a guilty plea or a finding of guilt by the court, or prior to committal for trial in a superior court,” Ms Chapman said.

“No other class of defendant is afforded the same protection and in the absence of compelling reason, I believe it’s fair that all persons charged with committing crimes are treated equally.”

Attorney-General Chapman said the proposals will improve the public’s confidence in the legal system and the flow of information to them, particularly around child sex offences, with that early publication of identity promoting the possibility of witnesses coming forward.

“Historically, the imposition of a suppression order has been based on the presumption of innocence and a desire to prevent a person who ultimately does not face trial, or who is found not guilty, from the social stigma of having been charged with a sexual offence,” Ms Chapman said. 

“While other serious offences may also attract some stigma, sexual offences are viewed as particularly abhorrent by the community and may taint the reputation of a person even if they are acquitted.

“However, the principle of open justice and the flow of information to the community should be treated as paramount.

“It is up to policy and law makers to consider all aspects of such a change, but in these circumstances, I believe the adverse effects on some accused are outweighed by the public interest in having an open system of justice.”

Ms Chapman said it was important to note that the changes would not impact on the protections already offered under Section 71A (4) of the Act, which protect the identity of the victim of a sexual offence and anything that might reasonably identify them.

“We will also be considering if these provisions need to be strengthened to ensure these amendments do not have any unintended impacts on victims, particularly children,” Ms Chapman said.

The changes will also not impact on section 69A of the Act, which provides general provisions for the making of suppression order, not limited to matters involving sexual offences.

The proposals follow the 2011 review by the Honourable Brian Martin AO QC, which investigated whether the restrictions on publication contained in section 71A are necessary or desirable and whether any amendments could be made. His primary recommendation was for the repeal of sections 71A (1) and (2).

“The former Labor Government failed to implement these changes when they were handed the report.

A draft Bill will now be prepared for consideration in Parliament, with consultation with the courts, justice agencies, the legal community and advocacy bodies already underway.