Imagine having to go through the stress and anxiety of a criminal case – only to find your name in the papers for friends, family and colleagues to see.
This happens most often to celebrities and public figures, but even ordinary people facing court for relatively minor offences can find their cases in the media, if a journalist happens to think it might make a good story.
The Downing Centre Court in the Sydney CBD regularly has journalists sitting in court watching cases, and photographers often wait outside to film defendants entering and leaving.
Whether you are famous or not, having your case published in the papers or broadcast on TV can be embarrassing and damaging to your reputation, and even your career.
What can I do about it?
Unfortunately, there is not normally a lot you can do to prevent your case ending up in the news, or to stop photographers snapping away when you leave court.
The principle of ‘open courts’ means that anyone is allowed to watch most cases, and media can generally report on what takes place – even if you don’t want them to.
But taking photos inside the courtroom is forbidden unless reporters obtain special permission.
It is also an offence to audio or video record proceedings, although the filming of sentencing proceedings and judgments may be allowed if permission if sought in advance.
Since the courtroom is generally off-limits to paparazzi, photographers often wait at the doors of courthouses – where they can legally snap up as many pictures as they like.
Can reporters and the general public always enter the courtroom?
Some cases may be held in closed court – which is somewhat confusingly referred to as ‘in camera’.
This means that the general public does not have access to the courtroom at all, and those not directly involved in the case (including journalists) must seek permission to remain in court.
Cases involving children and parts of sexual assault cases are often heard in this way.
What if reporters publish something that is untrue?
If media has published something untrue about you, defamation laws can come into play.
Defamation can either be a crime, or grounds to sue in the civil courts.
Section 529 of the NSW Crimes Act 1900 defines criminal defamation in NSW as: publishing information about another living person knowing the information to be false and with intent of causing serious harm to them, or being reckless as to the possibility of causing harm.
The definition is fairly narrow, and the offence can be difficult for the prosecution to prove.
It attracts a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment.
What about suppression orders?
Courts can make suppression or non-publication orders in order to prevent information from being published by the media.
However, section 8 of the Court Suppression and Non-Publication Orders Act 2010 NSW says that the court can only make such an order if:
1. It is necessary to prevent prejudice to the proper administration of justice;
2. It is necessary to prevent prejudice to the interests of the Commonwealth or a State or Territory in relation to national or international security;
3. It is necessary to protect the safety of any person;
4. It is necessary to avoid causing undue distress or embarrassment to a party to or witness in criminal proceedings involving an offence of a sexual nature (including an act of indecency); or
5. It is otherwise necessary in the public interest for the order to be made and that public interest significantly outweighs the public interest in open justice.
Simply being unhappy with seeing your name in the paper for the world to see is not enough to justify the grant of a suppression order.
If you feel angry or upset by the presence of the media, voicing your feelings to them will probably just increase the likelihood of the story being published.
So while you are not usually able to prevent the media from reporting about your case, it may be best to ignore their presence, make no comment and to keep walking once you exit the courthouse.