Recent proceedings in courts have laid bare the issue of how up to date our name suppression laws are. From the foreign media violating name suppression orders around the suspected murderer of Grace Millane to Joanne Harrison who used name suppression to continue her offending, the circumstances might be different, but the risk of a miscarriage of justice increases dramatically when abused.
On one hand when dealing with cases where naming the offender risks harming the victim, such as father harms son/daughter, there is a good and obvious case for name suppression. On the other hand if one is dealing with a person who has a litany of serious crimes in the past and the judge has decided that somehow despite the past record, that person deserves name suppression, then there is a clear problem.
Let us look at a few examples. One of the most recent is Joanne Harrison, who has been sent to jail for large scale fraudulent use of taxpayer dollars. A recidivist offender, whilst under name suppression, Mrs Harrison went on to commit even bigger crimes, taking advantage of the fact that no one knew of her or her history. Now we are only just becoming aware of the scale of Mrs Harrison’s offending and the impact that it would have had because another judge has finally decided that the offending is too grave for the public to not know about.
Just before Christmas last year, an English woman on a working visa to New Zealand went missing just after arriving in Auckland. A few days later she was found dead in the Waitakere Ranges. It was a homicide. Not long after that the Police arrested someone on suspicion of murdering Grace Millane. Then something illogical happened: the Judge imposed name suppression on New Zealand media, but the media from other countries, namely Britain ignored it and so did social media. Within a short period of time the whole internet knew who had been arrested. This drew criticism from the Minister of Justice Andrew Little and the New Zealand Bar Association.
But here is the problem. He is only SUSPECTED of murdering Ms Millane. Yet by the weight of public opinion he was tried, convicted and sentenced by the public on social media on the same day he appeared in court to enter his plea and apply for name suppression. The trial is not due to start until 04 November 2019. We now run the risk that this person will never get a fair trial because the public are already convinced beyond reasonable doubt he did it.
If we approach the problem from another angle, sometimes the Judge is confronted with a highly affluent figure who has spent considerable money on hiring a good lawyer. Despite the severity of the charges the affluent figure might get their name suppression simply because the lawyer knows enough about the legal ins and outs to find a way of justifying name suppression and does so. Here this can become a major problem, because let us suppose for example it involves a large sum of money that they were responsible for the appropriate use of, it disappears and later on turns up in private accounts. The defendant shows little understanding or remorse for what they did and only appears regretful that s/he was caught in the first place. The defendant continues to pose a risk that the public is not aware of because money was able to buy name suppression.
I am thus not of the opinion that name suppression laws should be completely dumped, but I think there is a strong case for radically overhauling how we apply them. Perhaps all media entering a court room should sign an agreement stipulating that whilst covering the proceedings they agree they are subject to New Zealand laws including judge rulings on the case
In the case of Grace Millane if there comes a point where the judge is convinced the prospects of a fair trial are wrecked, no one gets justice. Not Grace. Not the defendant. Nor her family. No one.
And that is not okay.