A young male is arrested by police on Queens Road, Hermit Park after stealing a car with three other juveniles. Picture: Zak Simmonds.
A young male is arrested by police on Queens Road, Hermit Park after stealing a car with three other juveniles. Picture: Zak Simmonds.

Secret justice ‘puts confidence at risk’

A media law expert has labelled Queensland's restrictions on reporting Children's Court matters as "extreme" and warns a move towards secret justice will "undermine" the public's confidence in the judicial system.

Townsville media successfully argued it was within the public interest to report on a bail application for a 13-year-old boy in state care, accused of stealing a dual cab ute that caused chaos in the city in October.

The following day, the Townsville Bulletin's application to report on a 15-year-old boy charged with one count of unlawful use of a motor vehicle was rejected by the same magistrate who approved a day earlier.

Lawyer Justin Quill of Macpherson Kelley, said the Northern Territory sat at one "extreme" by allowing the reporting of the identities of children, where Queensland sat at the other end of the spectrum, hearing children's matters in closed court.

"The old saying is really appropriate here, justice shouldn't just be done, it should be seen to be done," he said. "Secret justice undermines the public's confidence in the judicial system but also the public's understanding of the judicial system, with understanding comes confidence."

"That is particularly the case where the matter sought to be reported upon is a matter of enormous public interest, such as the recent events in Townsville."

Mr Quill said Victoria allowed members of the public to sit in on children's matters but prohibited the publishing of their identities.

"There is a real interest in the public seeing the processes of our judicial system, not just the outcome. That public interest is even higher in a case where the judicial process is one happening as a result of the public being put in danger," he said.

"It's an extreme step to have any hearing in closed court or effectively in secret, and when the legislation automatically keeps identities confidential. I just don't see the need for that extreme step of having secret hearings."

Queensland Law Society president Bill Potts said each case needed to be judged on its merits, and wanted to see guidelines put in place for magistrates and the Children's Court to ensure consistency.

"It's a balancing act between the public's legitimate interest in knowing what's happened in court proceedings to ensure the justice system stays transparent and maintains public faith," he said. "There's also a need to protect the identification of vulnerable children and sometimes that's where the concern arises … the public's right to know and accurate reporting has to be part of the mix."