25 Sep 2022

The push for open justice

From Mediawatch, 4:40 pm on 25 September 2022

Journalists are shining a light on our legal system, revealing some important cases and systemic problems. They're doing so in the face of impediments inside the courts and uncertainty about where the money to pay for the reporting will come from.

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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

In June, RNZ investigative reporter Guyon Espiner appeared on Morning Report to talk about the impediments he had faced navigating the legal system to cover the case of a man shot dead by police.

Shargin Stephens was shot and killed by officers after attacking an empty police car with a weed slasher.

Espiner had been reporting the events leading up to Stephens' death, which included him being subjected him to "ninja-style" late-night bail checks by officers who described themselves in emails as "nightstalker bros".

But that effort had been impeded after a coroner had – without evidence – blamed the family for leaking court documents to the media.

That coroner – J P Ryan – also banned the media from covering inquiry into Stephens' death, in a decision that was in place for a year before it was overturned by the High Court.

Espiner is one of a growing number of reporters putting the spotlight on our legal system, and he’s not the only one running into obstacles inside the courts.

Stuff’s Kirsty Johnston recently won a Voyager award for best reporter, in part for a story she wrote on a woman referred to as Mrs P, who had been falsely accused by a judge of lying about being a victim of domestic abuse.

In what’s become a common problem for her, Johnston struggled to source court transcripts to cover the case.

She told Mediawatch it’s difficult to properly scrutinise district courts in particular, given they hear thousands of cases a year, and their judgements aren't routinely made publicly available.

"The lack of access to court information - what actually happens in hearing and what is on the court file - makes it a near impossible task to scrutinise the court system.

"We preach the principles of open justice - but we don’t practice them," she said.

Johnston is motivated to negotiate these pitfalls because of what she sees as significant, and often overlooked, inequities inside the legal system.

In the introduction to the podcast Tell Me About It, which she co-hosts with her colleague Michelle Duff and producer Noelle McCarthy, she talks about a "system rigged against women and minorities".

Stuff's rival NZME, owner of the Herald and Newstalk ZB, is also devoting extra resources and attention to the courts.

The Open Justice Project yielded this startling story in the Herald on Sunday.

The Open Justice Project yielded this startling story in the Herald on Sunday. Photo: RNZ Mediawatch

It recently received nearly $3 million from the Public Interest Journalism Fund for its project Open Justice Te Pātiti, which is funded to employ 15 specialist journalists to cover everything from the Supreme Court to the Tenancy Tribunal.

The project has increased coverage of our courts across the country, including several in smaller towns and regions that have not seen regular scrutiny in some time.

People involved in Open Justice told Mediawatch that reporters had been asked to leave courts by staff who were unfamiliar with the fact that they were permitted to be there by law.

Stories generated by the project receive a million or more clicks per week, according to a source at NZME.

Some have had a real impact.  

Earlier this month Open Justice Te Pātiti reporter Jeremy Wilkinson reported on an opportunist rental scammer who had preyed upon immigrants and young tenants for years. 

Judith Webby had been posing as a landlord using a variety of fake names - and even though her scams had been exposed on Fair Go in the past, she was still doing it  - because those who reported her to police were told it was merely a tenancy matter - and she never turned up to the hearings.  

It wasn't until Wilkinson reported a relatively obscure Human Rights Review Tribunal decision against Webby recently that the full range of her repeated offences and bullying was exposed by the New Zealand Herald and several other outlets around the country. 

Despite these sorts of successes, Open Justice’s future is far from guaranteed. Its funding runs out in September next year, though NZME can apply for further funds in either of the two final PIJF rounds.

RNZ has scrutinised the justice system on a more systemic level with a recent project from its investigative team In Depth titled Is This Justice?

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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

It revealed, among other things, that Pākehā are discharged without conviction and granted name suppression at higher rates than Māori, that 90 percent of High Court and Court of Appeal judges are Pākehā, and that judges could be presiding over the cases of people they know.

In Depth’s editor Veronica Schmidt says the series was motivated in part by personal experience. She recently went through a multi-year court ordeal after being filmed without her permission in a K-Mart changing room cubicle.

At the end of a piece she wrote for RNZ describing her experience, she pointed to some of those inequities in the system, questioning whether she would have been able to go through the legal process if she had been traumatised by a more serious crime, or whether she could have even pursued a case in the first place if she didn’t have access to childcare or paid leave.

"I am a privileged person and was the victim of a relatively minor crime and it took a lot out of me to get justice. So, how much does the system cost the less privileged? How much does it cost the victims of serious crimes?" she wrote.

Schmidt told Mediawatch experiencing the court system was an eye-opening experience in itself, and her sense of surprise grew as the In Depth team dug up stories for the series.

She saw it as imperative for journalists to put more of a focus on the inequities which keep some people from accessing justice.

"Guyon and I were both surprised by some of the things we'd seen in the system, and also as our team uncovered things, we were shocked about certain things and if we didn't know about them we figured other people didn't either, so probably there hadn't been enough of a spotlight on the system."

Some figures inside the justice system haven't exactly welcomed RNZ casting a critical eye over issues like the ethnic makeup of the judiciary, Schmidt said.

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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

After the Is This Justice? reports came out, Stuff obtained a leaked email from Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann which talked about "inaccurate narratives" in the media about the makeup of the judiciary. 

Schmidt said some staff in the court system were likely unused to media scrutiny, as financial constraints and New Zealand's growing population have made it harder for news organisations to cover hearings as comprehensively as they had in the past.

She welcomed Johnston's reporting and projects like Open Justice for shining a much-needed light on a key pillar of society, and called for more funding to allow them to continue.

"The issue is that most people cannot go and sit in courtrooms every day to see if a guy they've invested money with is in the dock for fraud or a guy they've entrusted their kids with is in the dock on abuse charges. 

"They do rely on the media for that, to report what's going on."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Guyon Espiner had been working with Shargin Stephens' family. That was incorrect.