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Gertie's Law

Gertie's Law

By Carolyn Ford

Communication Courts 


Victorian Chief Justice Anne Ferguson has launched a Supreme Court podcast. On the morning of 11 April, 2011, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, then a judge of the Commercial Court, took time out to listen to a live audio broadcast of a significant criminal sentencing. It was that of Arthur Phillip Freeman who threw his 4-year-old daughter Darcey off the West Gate Bridge, killing her. “You did what you did. You are responsible for it, and nobody else is,” Justice Paul Coghlan said. It was one of the early live high-profile court broadcasts and it moved the Chief Justice in a way, she says, a written judgment would not have. “I remember listening to Justice Coghlan delivering the sentence that was broadcast on mainstream media. I wasn't a criminal judge but I was interested. It was really moving hearing his voice. It's quite different to reading the sentence. I was sold from then. I just thought that was so much more powerful.” Fast forward to 2019 and Chief Justice Ferguson is championing the power of the spoken word in a new Supreme Court podcast called Gertie’s Law. (Gertie is the colloquial name given to the Lady Justice statue above the entrance to the Supreme Court on William Street, nobody knows by whom or why). The podcast, a first for a court in Victoria, was launched in March and can be accessed on all devices via the Supreme Court website and podcast apps. “A lot of people listen to podcasts on their way to work,” says the Chief Justice, whose own preferred listening is Talking Tigers in footy season. “I catch public transport mostly, and you look around and people are listening to or watching something, or both, on a device – very different to when I started in practice and everybody was reading a newspaper.” The first episode of Gertie’s Law is a “curtain-raiser” on the court. During the 45-minute program, Chief Justice Ferguson and 12 other judges and two registrars talk about the busy workings of the court (6000 matters in 2016-17), its history and role. Background sounds help paint a vivid picture. There is the sound of a tram rumbling past, traffic, footsteps, the sharp collective intake of breath when a sentence of 30 years imprisonment is handed down. So do the sentencing remarks of judges for real, violent crimes. A 12cm knife wound which “lacerated his thigh muscles” is detailed, as is the suffocation of a woman whose head was sealed in a bag with duct tape with “no chance to breathe or survive” and the efforts of a petite young woman to resist being dragged off by her attacker “away from the light” by trying to hang on to the ground. Criminal division matters pave the way in the podcast, but all areas of the court are explained – commercial, common law and the Court of Appeal. On having their decisions overturned, one judge admits, “we are fallible, capable of making mistakes”. The court’s history is explored, including why it sits where it does, away from Parliament House, representing a separation of powers. Overlaying Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights on matters is explained by Justice John Dixon. Even the alleged ghosts in icy court 4, the so-called Kelly Court, get a mention. Bringing people into the court – electronically and in person – so there is greater understanding of how it works is a key theme of the podcast. Public galleries sit empty most of the time, with many people unaware they are allowed to attend. Nowadays, court news is via the mainstream media. “Seats are empty. People have little idea what goes on, there’s not much appreciation of the kind of work we do. We need to find ways of bringing people in,” Justice John Champion says on the podcast, which has been made by non-lawyers, so there is no assumed knowledge. With the aim of keeping it relevant, coming episodes, to be released fortnightly, will cover sentencing, juries, suppression orders, all controversial issues in recent times. “My aim is to help expose the work of the court,” Chief Justice Ferguson says. “I can't see how you can do that without going into issues that people are interested in. The extent to which sitting judges can do that has to be limited, and there are good reasons for that, but it doesn't mean that other voices can't be talking about things and from a different perspective. “We talk about principles. We don't talk about specific cases. “I've got family and friends who are not in the legal profession, and I talk to them and from time to time, I find myself explaining concepts . . . why you have suppression orders, how sentencing works, that high level question. “I think to myself, rather than just talking to family and friends about what we do, maybe there are other people who would benefit from this. “We do talk about other things, too, normal family things, like what everybody's watching on television. “I am really pleased we are trying something a bit different [with the podcast]. I'm proud of the work being done by really good, dedicated people, with the aim of changing the way people see the court and bringing them in.” Gertie’s Law adds to the growing suite of e-materials provided by the Supreme Court for the public and practitioners. There are videos of admissions ceremonies of new lawyers and Silks, judicial welcomes and farewells, directions ehearings as part of a pilot program and selected sentencings, appeals and class actions. Justice James Elliott is overseeing the pilot program of directions hearings by Skype out of his chambers. He has reported it is a unique opportunity to reduce the strain on court resources and there has been a positive response from practitioners. “Feedback has been pretty positive,” says the Chief Justice. “I haven't done one myself but I don't imagine [anything is lost]. Lots of businesses do it and the technology is improving all the time, so I doubt it. It's another change management thing, people have got to get used to change.” Admissions ceremonies streamed live online are particularly useful for lawyers’ faraway family, friends and firm colleagues, not least because each new lawyer is able to invite two people only. New lawyers can ask for a copy of their ceremony and the Supreme Court will provide a link at no cost. The Chief Justice, who speaks at every admissions ceremony unless she is not in Melbourne, has to rely on her memories and a few photos to recall her own ceremony, and says she would like to have had a video taken, fashion and haircut notwithstanding. It’s all a long way from the moment in 1991 when then Premier Jeff Kennett described the first video broadcast of a sentencing in a murder trial by then Justice Bernie Teague as a “circus” and “demeaning justice”. “What happens,” says the Chief Justice, “is that new things take a while [to get used to], things improve, people get used to change, and it works pretty well.” Collectively, the electronic materials are designed to achieve efficiencies in the courts but also increase access to justice and improve public understanding of how the courts work. “I am a great believer in the value of having knowledge. In the past we let our written reasons speak for us and we didn't really go beyond that. So part of what I see as the role of Chief Justice is to open that up … so the community is informed about why decisions are made. “Years ago, there wasn't television or internet. People came to the courts. That's gone as a forum for understanding what happens in a courtroom. It would be great if everybody did come to the court, but that's not the reality. These are small steps on the way to making it accessible for people. “When I had my welcome ceremony as Chief Justice, one of the things I said was that I wanted what judges do to be well understood and also why we do the things we do. “The ceremonial part of what we do is part of it, not the main part, but it is part of a broader aim to bring the court into the community so that we can help people understand their court.” Other technological initiatives at the Supreme Court are: digital upgrade of 31 courts with live-streaming and private access options; online instructional video of Redcrest briefing session; capacity to display CCTV, images and video captured on mobile devices in ultra-high definition; and practitioners' ability to connect wired and wirelessly. In June 2017, the Court of Appeal started a pilot, putting audio-visual recordings of some hearings on its website to ensure greater transparency and accessibility. It livestreamed the judgment in the Bauer Media Pty Ltd v Rebel Wilson matter in June last year. The pilot is being assessed.

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