State of Emergency? Attack on open courts by Howard Government

Philip Ruddock, Commonwealth Attorney-General yesterday introduced legislation into the Federal Parliament that could close court rooms around Australia hearing civil proceedings not only to members of the public but further, to the parties to the civil proceeding themselves. He has already initiated laws that operate to close criminal Courts to the public. The Attorney-General now seeks to extend that model to civil proceedings across Australia.

The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2005 allows the Attorney-General or an appointed Minister to closely monitor and to regulate the information that is disclosed Court rooms where the Attorney-General takes the view that “sensitive security information” will be disclosed. The Attorney-General’s control of the proceedings extends to who may participate. For example, only lawyers with security clearance may participate; court rooms may be closed; and court procedure will need to be modified to allow “sensitive security” information to be strictly controlled.

Robin Banks, Director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), responded to the legislation saying, “The Attorney-General seeks to justify the legislation in the name of national security. But the people of Australia ought to consider the national interest in maintaining open Court rooms, particularly where the Government is a party. An important power of a Court is to compel Government to make disclosure about its activities as they are relevant to the proceedings, and to act as a check on its exercise of power. How can the Attorney-General expect the Australian people to feel secure in a nation where its own Government seeks to hide behind closed court room doors?”

Ms Banks went on to say that, “This legislation is part of a worrying trend observed first in the area of immigration and now in the name of counter-terrorism. This Attorney-General, both as Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and as Attorney-General, has sought to regulate the judiciary by taking decisions out of its hands. Our judges already have the power to close the Court and to conduct closed proceedings. They do so only in very special circumstances. The Attorney-General is seeking to bypass that process with this legislation.”

She continued, “The Attorney-General’s proposed legislation will mean that only judges and people who have passed Government-controlled security clearance will be permitted to participate in such legal proceedings, making a mockery of the principle of open and transparent administration of justice that has underpinned Australian democracy to date. Australia needs a separation of powers now more than ever. Surely, one of the strongest bulwarks against threats to our society are the democratic institutions themselves. Open courts are a fundamental part of our democracy and must be defended.”

MEDIA CONTACT: Dominic O’Grady, Media and Communications Officer,

Public Interest Advocacy Centre. Ph: 02 8898 6532 or 0400 110 169

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