And justice for some

Pam
Pam Frampton
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"Naming offenders removes the shroud of secrecy under which they lurk, and increases their future accountability. It acts as a deterrent to others."

- Denise Ritchie, founder of the New Zealand group Stop Demand, which speaks out about sexual violence

"Naming offenders removes the shroud of secrecy under which they lurk, and increases their future accountability. It acts as a deterrent to others."

- Denise Ritchie, founder of the New Zealand group Stop Demand, which speaks out about sexual violence

It's a rare week that goes by when someone doesn't call our newsroom to rail against a system of justice that allows the publication of the names of people charged with crimes.

"You've got no right to have his name in the paper!" says the infuriated caller, and it can be tough to convince them that, in fact, we do have the right.

It's nothing personal as far as the media is concerned, but it must feel intensely personal for the person whose face and name make it into print or onto the television screen.

And that's understandable.

Most people would want to protect their identity if they could, if they've been charged with a crime.

It's tough enough to explain things to your family and friends, let alone have the whole province know you've been charged with an offence, even if you are confident it's all been one big misunderstanding and your name will be cleared.

"I think that in all honesty, regardless of the crime, names should not be released if it could hurt the rest of an innocent family," Kay from St. John's, N.L., wrote in response to my column on "Naming names" last week.

"There is something inherently wrong when a person charged with an offence such as sexual assault or any serious charge, is paraded, in handcuffs, and his/her picture is plastered on the front page of a newspaper," wrote Gar from Mount Pearl.

"Is that person not presumed innocent until proven otherwise?"

Those are good points, and there are many others to be made in a debate that has been simmering not just in our neck of the woods, but in many jurisdictions.

But while some people here would like the names of the accused to be suppressed, in New Zealand they've been there and done that, and many people will tell you it just doesn't work.

In New Zealand, as in Canada, there are cases where the names of those accused or convicted are not published in order to protect the identity of victims, or because the person charged with the crime is a youth.

But in New Zealand, there are also cases where the reasons for granting anonymity are not as compelling or clear-cut.

In December 2008, a report from that country's Law Commission, titled Suppressing Names and Evidence, lists the pros and cons of not publishing the names of the accused or the convicted.

One argument for suppressing names is that media publicity can damage a person's reputation.

Moreover, the report says, that damage "may not be wholly repaired if the accused is acquitted; the acquittal may receive less publicity than the charge; and an acquittal will not always, or even generally, be regarded as establishing that the accused was innocent."

But problems have arisen because the courts have a huge amount of scope when it comes to suppressing names, and the Law Commission doesn't feel the policy is applied consistently.

"The current position in New Zealand is that the courts have a broad discretion to prohibit publication of names or identifying particulars of people accused or convicted of crimes ...," law commissioner Val Sims told The Telegram.

"The commission's view is that this discretion is too broad, and can lead to uncertainty and inconsistency. We recommended that the scope of the discretion should be reduced, and specific grounds on which name suppression may be granted should be set out in legislation."

The New Zealand Ministry of Justice is currently working with the Law Commission to draft a new bill simplifying criminal procedure.

Meanwhile, names are still being suppressed, and critics say the policy has led to a two-tiered system of justice.

Information is power

Stop Demand, an Auckland-based organization devoted to stopping sexual violence against women and children, was outraged this month when name suppression was granted to a prominent businessman after he downloaded more than 300,000 pornographic images over a two-year period, many of them of young girls. He was arrested and convicted after an FBI investigation.

The man was given four months' house arrest and there is a permanent publication ban on his identity.

The founder of Stop Demand, Denise Ritchie, said granting sex offenders anonymity allows them to operate in secrecy.

"Given the sheer volume of images and the lengthy two-year period of offending, this man clearly has a sexual interest in young girls," she told The Telegram via e-mail.

"The public, particularly caregivers and children in his community, are entitled to know who he is."

Ritchie said public perception is that the well-connected can apply for and receive name suppression, while regular folks have to suffer the slings and arrows of publicity when they face criminal charges.

"In New Zealand, permanent name suppression has recently been granted to an ex-MP, an entertainer/comedian, a top level sports player, and a 'prominent man' in a provincial town, to cite some examples ...," Ritchie wrote.

"Lesser-known New Zealanders committing similar offences do NOT receive name suppression. The public disquiet rests largely on the issue that the law is not being applied equally to all New Zealanders and a sense that some courts are willing to protect the names of the 'well heeled.'

"A system of justice should be - and seen to be - open, and one that is applied equally to all. Name suppression should be granted only in exceptional circumstances, such as (when) in doing so it would identify a sex abuse victim."

Outing the accused

Granting anonymity to some and not to others has led to virtual vigilantism in New Zealand, where at least one prominent blogger makes a habit of "outing" those who have been granted name suppression.

He is facing charges as a result, but remains committed to his cause.

"I think that the public have had enough and I am just tapping into what the public want," Cameron Slater told New Zealand's 3 News.

Just last month, his prominent Whale Oil blog identified a national figure charged with indecently assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

Other critics of name suppression point out that by not naming suspects, a whole segment of society is unfairly tarred with the same brush.

The mayor of the town of Wanganui, New Zealand, told news website Voxy.co.nz last month that by granting anonymity to a former MP charged with indecently assaulting a child, the courts have brought the name of every former MP into disrepute.

"What the media reports do is identify a small group from which the defendant is drawn," he said.

"But that places all ex-MPs under suspicion and that is unconscionable."

Imagine if that had been the case here in the constituency allowance spending scandal, and we were not told which former MHAs were charged with squandering our money for their own personal gain.

Mayor Michael Laws calls the name suppression policy a farce and says "the judiciary is out of touch with both public sentiment and the concept of open justice."

"Currently, we have a musician convicted of a sex crime; a comedian charged with appalling child abuse; an Olympian charged with rape and serious assault; and another ex-MP also before the courts for fraud," he said.

"In each case, totally innocent individuals are under suspicion and that is completely wrong."

In November, the New Zealand Herald reported that a drunken entertainer who exposed himself and forced a teenage girl's face into his genitals pleaded guilty but was discharged without a conviction and was granted name suppression because "(t)he judge said publicity would have a detrimental effect on his career and his record and ticket sales."

Is this the kind of system we want?

Flawed but fair

Canada's open justice system is not perfect. Some charges are publicized while others are not, depending on their severity or the perceived level of public interest.

People convicted in smaller centres in this province are less likely to have their cases publicized than those in urban areas because media organizations tend to base most of their reporters in larger communities.

Some crimes get high-profile coverage, while others wind up as brief news snippets in the paper or in radio or TV newscasts, depending on what other news has broken that day.

Occasionally, the media might inadvertently report that someone was charged, but not that they were later acquitted.

But the alternative is a closed or partially closed system - some would argue an elitist one - where justice for you and me may feel a whole lot harsher than for those with power or influence.

William Goodridge, a judge with the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador Trial Division in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, says our system should be safeguarded and supported.

"The open court is a key component of our free and democratic society," he wrote to The Telegram last week.

"Members of the public rely on the media as their eyes and ears, to comment or criticize. That role by the media is so, so important in our society. It is one of the key safeguards ensuring a 'just society.'"

Those "eyes and ears" may not be infallible, but they do strive to be impartial, and that is far better than a system where judges can make decisions based not just on someone's criminal record, but on their record sales.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Telegram, New Zealand Ministry of Justice, FBI New Zealand Herald Supreme Court Newfoundland and Labrador Trial Division

Geographic location: New Zealand, Mount Pearl, Canada St. John's Wanganui Happy Valley Goose Bay

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Recent comments

  • Ed
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    Pam, I believe you want to have two sets of rules. I cannot agree with your position in this column. I certainly do agree that a person who has been sexually assaulted should have some protection from publicity. I also believe that a person who is 'charged' with such a crime deserves the same protection until they are convicted. Once convicted, they are fair game.

    The effects of these very serious charges on an innocent person and their family are terrible and it serves no purpose to inflict them without a conviction.

    I almost always find myself supporting or agreeing with content in your columns but I have a real problem with this dual standard.

    Please don't try to confuse the issue with what other countries are doing to hide the names of convicted people, I am talking about people who have just been 'charged' not 'convicted'. Remember, we are supposed to be entitled to a presumption of innocence. The day may come that one of us will appreciate having that to protect us.

  • Ed
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    Pam, I believe you want to have two sets of rules. I cannot agree with your position in this column. I certainly do agree that a person who has been sexually assaulted should have some protection from publicity. I also believe that a person who is 'charged' with such a crime deserves the same protection until they are convicted. Once convicted, they are fair game.

    The effects of these very serious charges on an innocent person and their family are terrible and it serves no purpose to inflict them without a conviction.

    I almost always find myself supporting or agreeing with content in your columns but I have a real problem with this dual standard.

    Please don't try to confuse the issue with what other countries are doing to hide the names of convicted people, I am talking about people who have just been 'charged' not 'convicted'. Remember, we are supposed to be entitled to a presumption of innocence. The day may come that one of us will appreciate having that to protect us.