Courts are keeping public in the dark


QUEENSLAND courts have suppressed almost 50 cases since the beginning of 2017, with one suppression order made every fortnight on average so far this year.

The rate of suppressions in Queensland is significantly lower than our southern counterparts, with Victoria imposing 251 orders this year, followed by New South Wales with 120, compared with only 19 in Queensland.

But suppression orders aren't the only means by which the details of a case can be kept secret, and unable to be reported on in Queensland.

Courts can use legislation designed to protect child ­victims, domestic violence victims and even criminals who give evidence against others, to stop media reporting details of a case.

Kmart predator Sterling Free.
Kmart predator Sterling Free.

In December, a magistrate used century-old legislation to block reporters from covering the horrific case of Sterling Free, the man who kidnapped a little girl from a shopping centre and sexually assaulted her in nearby bushland.

Queensland magistrate Trevor Morgan blocked reporters from reporting Free's case, citing a provision from the Justices Act, first drafted in 1886, that allows the hearings to be closed to the public "in the interests of public morality".

While media were already restricted by law from identifying the girl, as with any child victim of crime, Mr Morgan ­intervened further after a ­request from the prosecution, stopping media from reporting any details of the case - including how the child had been lured away from her mother. That information could be used by parents to protect their own children from similar instances and media organisations unsuccessfully fought the restriction on ­reporting.

Many high-profile cases in Queensland have been slapped with suppression ­orders in recent years, including the sentencing of toddler Mason Jet Lee's killer William O'Sullivan. When O'Sullivan was ­sentenced to a six-year non-parole period for the horrific manslaughter of the little boy last year, the Supreme Court suppressed the entire proceeding for a week out of concern for his co-accused, Mason's mother Annemarree Lee.

She was later sentenced to nine years in jail for her part in the boy's death.

The seven-day delay between the sentence and it being publicly reported meant an entire week was lost of the 28-day window in which the attorney-general can respond to calls to fight for a longer sentence and order an appeal.

Mason Lee was found dead at a home north of Brisbane in 2016.
Mason Lee was found dead at a home north of Brisbane in 2016.

Bravehearts founder and prominent child protection advocate Hetty Johnston said she was concerned about the level of secrecy within the courts. "There needs to be really good reasons why the community can't know what's going on in court," Ms Johnston said.

"We have to consider the victim of crime and the public benefit test has to be the guiding rule, not bureaucracy and not random court decisions," she said.

Ms Johnston said while sometimes it was "in the best interest of justice" that a court be closed, it should be "the exception, not the rule".

"I reckon we just have to go with presumption that the community should know what's going on without exception and there needs to be exceptional reasons to make an exception," she said.

"I think there's a lot of secrecy right across society and it is concerning."

The child protection advocate said it was concerning when criminals such as Sterling Free were given protections. "Why would we need to protect him," she said.

"What is in the structure of the court that doesn't already protect him?"

Killer William O'Sullivan.
Killer William O'Sullivan.