Journalists report on court cases to help the public understand what is happening in its judiciary system, to encourage public confidence in the law and to help the law deter future crime. But the practice is not as simple as the theory behind it. Although there are significant ethical implications to consider, legal ramifications, like defamation and contempt of court, are much more problematic. If a journalist is not fair, accurate and balanced in their reports, they could be sued or even jailed for their work.
With this teaching in mind, I went on the class excursion to the Melbourne Magistrates; my very first time in a court. It was a great experience where I was able to understand how a courtroom is set and how a case is run. Although I stayed and watched a case for three hours, I was unable to obtain the age, place of residence or even what charges had been laid against the accused. I enquired with the clerk but because it was the second day of a committal hearing, which was looking to be sent to the Supreme Court, she was unable to give me any further details.
With not enough information to write two reports, I went again to the Melbourne Magistrates Court two weeks later. I was better prepared this time and made sure I looked at the listings the night before. I sat again for a few hours and witnessed seven cases be put through. I watched adjournment after adjournment and was wondering if I would be able to view a completed case. Luckily for me, the last two cases had the accused pleading guilty so I focused my reports on those two incidents.
The first case was about Ahmad Hablis who had been charged for driving while his licence was suspended. This case was relatively straightforward and over quickly. The accused pleaded guilty and was convicted so I knew I would legally be able to report his name and his previous speeding convictions. Although the entirety of the sub judice period was not over, the chances of an appeal are extremely small because Hablis pleaded guilty to the offence and even stated he just wanted it all finished. When the Magistrate was handing out his sentence, he also asked for the accused’s age and place of residence so I was able to record those details for my piece.
The second case I reported was about Anne Hankey who had been charged with drink driving and driving while suspended. I found this case much more difficult to report on. The accused also pleaded guilty and was convicted, so I knew I would be able to mention her name as well as her previous drink driving convictions (like the Hablis case, there is still the chance of an appeal but as Hankey pleaded guilty and was planning on starting a new life interstate, the chance seems minimal). While I found the legal ramifications easy to assess, the ethical considerations were much more complicated for me.
The accused was being psychologically and physically abused at the time of the incident. She told the Magistrate how her partner, Eddie, had been abusing her for almost the entirety of their nine-year relationship. She had been drinking on the night of the offence after having a physical altercation with her partner. Hankey said she was “looking for some companionship” on the night of the incident and made the decision to drive and see a new man.
I determined the angle of the story was her reoffending drink driving because drink driving is a prevalent issue in our society. Despite this, I believe the domestic abuse was integral to the reason why she had been drink driving. But how would I word it? And should I mention it at all? I deliberated over this aspect of the piece extensively, constantly rewording, deleting, and rewriting. Finally I decided to include it within the piece but described it as “mental health issues… as a result of prolonged domestic abuse from a former partner”. I also mentioned she “now has a restraining order against her former partner”. Although I didn’t detail the extent of the abuse, I still mentioned domestic violence and mental illness so I decided to provide support services at the end of my piece.
Each of the accused pleaded guilty and both cases reached a conclusion, so it would be appropriate for the two court reports to be published on the day of the cases. I think both reports would be suited to a Melbourne print or online publication such as The Age or The Melbourne Leader. As both cases were resolved in their mention hearings, I don’t think there would be a strong follow up piece for each case. There is the possibility, though, to write a piece on the broader issue of domestic violence or drink driving.
It was a great experience to be sent out to report on a couple of court cases. It was definitely challenging and time consuming to consider all of the legal and ethical ramifications. Ultimately though, I think this exercise has made me more confident to report on a court case in the future.