Going public in the Court's defence.
By Karin Derkley, Law Institute Journal
Chief Judge Peter Kidd believes it is important to use whatever channels are available to communicate how the Court works.
In June last year, an extraordinary thing happened at the County Court. A Current Affair, the Channel Nine show more accustomed to stories about sick kids and shonky builders, filmed a segment at the Court.
The segment, in which Chief Judge Peter Kidd and Judge Elizabeth Gaynor and Judge Wendy Wilmoth were interviewed about their work at the Court, aimed to dispel common misconceptions about sentencing and judges.
“It was a great success,” he said. “Everyone enjoyed it and the response to it has been very largely positive.”
The County Court’s decision to allow TV cameras into the courtroom was not made lightly. It is part of a longer term strategy by the Court and particularly by Chief Judge Kidd to better communicate with the public about the work of the Court.
Chief Judge Kidd says he has long been concerned that the work of the courts was not being properly explained in the media and believes this in part explains the escalating uninformed criticism of the courts.
“I don’t think the public really understands the way sentencing works because they’ve never been told how it works. Basically, their only source of information (about sentencing) is from politicians and the media – and a lot of the time that is incomplete, overly simplistic and can sometimes be positively misleading.”
The Chief Judge says the courts need to play a bigger role in educating the public about what they do and has been enthusiastically leading the way in doing so. “I want to convey to the public the reality that we sentence for the benefit of the community by applying the rule of law, not just by making popular decisions.”
This educative campaign has a multi-pronged approach that includes a revamped County Court website, material and events aimed at schools, a media portal for registered journalists, and community engagement days where leaders of the community visit the court to learn how it works and how judges approach sentencing.
But it is Chief Judge Kidd’s decision to speak directly to the media that is perhaps the most radical change for the courts.
Public comments by judges have in the past mostly been restricted to the occasional opinion article. However, the Chief Judge believes it important to use whatever channels are available to communicate how the Court works. Over the past year he has spoken on radio, including to ABC Melbourne’s Jon Faine, 3AW’s Neil Mitchell and ABC television. He has also spoken to the print media – including for a Good Weekend feature about the mental health crisis in the courts.
There are clear demarcations on what he can talk about, he says. “I talk about the Court’s work, and how it is conveyed to the public through the media. I don’t engage in any discussion on anything outside of those two topics.”
Going on radio was the logical first step because it is live and immediate and more controllable in the sense that “No one's editing me". Of course, that means there’s no going back on what is said. “If I make a mistake, obviously it's too late. But I'm pretty philosophical. Nothing's perfect. Mistakes are made. I'm looking at the big picture here, the long game.”
Television provides another level of complexity. Preparation for A Current Affair's visit took three months and ensuring the filming did not disrupt the Court on the day required deft management. News interviews may use only a short sound bite from a minutes-long interview.
Beyond the actual media appearances, there is little control over how the wider media report on his comments. After he spoke on the ABC about the skewed nature of media reporting on African crime, the Chief Judge was reported in some newspapers as having “slammed” the media, and earned the ire of then Victorian Opposition leader Matthew Guy, who described him as “out of touch”.
That fallout does not faze the Chief Judge. “I can’t control what the politicians and the media say and if they want to run a simplistic law and order narrative that is critical of the judiciary there’s not much I can do about that.”
The alternative is saying and doing nothing, he says. “And that is not an alternative. I’d rather be out there trying with the occasional setback and piece of criticism, and even a bloody nose – but I’m okay with that.”
As the head of the state’s principal trial court, Chief Judge Kidd says it is appropriate for him to speak out in this role. “Most of the serious sentencing in this state is done by this court. And a lot of the criticism surrounds criminal law and sentencing law. The County Court is front and centre of this engagement with the community for that reason.”