NZ suppression laws ‘past their used-by date,’ academics say

by Sol Dolor26 Jun 2019


The country’s suppression laws are “past their used-by date,” two Massey University academics say.

Dr Catherine Strong and Fran Tyler, journalism academics and previous court reporters, say that one problem arising from the suppression practices in the country is that even though a quick internet search can bring up a person’s background and that New Zealand’s courts are open to the public, convicted criminals can have their name suppressed by the “unilateral decision” of a judge.

“The judge has the power to keep the criminal’s identity secret or public. And this name suppression means the public is vulnerable to this unidentified criminal being able to do it again,” they said in a press release.

The academics cited the case of Joanne Harrison, who recently made headlines for a name suppression order granted to her that was subsequently lifted. Harrison, under the name Joanne Sharp, had seriously offended while she was a senior manager at Tower Insurance, but she was granted name suppression and later went on to misappropriate more than $725,000 from the Ministry of Transport. After politicians openly criticised the name suppression order granted to Harrison, the New Zealand Bar Association urged caution in criticising judges' decisions.

Strong and Tyler said that suppression being granted can sometimes come down to who can hire the best lawyers.

“Court reporters tell us it can come down to who is affluent enough to hire a good lawyer. An experienced lawyer can get a suppression order that may not otherwise be made,” they said.

The academics noted that even when suppression in court cases was introduced nearly a century ago, there were concerns raised. They cited a case in which magistrate Ed Mosley declined a suppression request, saying “I believe that the ventilation in the newspapers of a man’s conviction of theft does more in deterring crime of this kind than the actual convictions by the court.”

Strong and Tyler said that publicising criminals’ names and crimes before name suppression was enacted produced valuable discussion, served as a deterrent to committing the same crimes, led to changes in societal standards, and even produced new laws.

“Too often, currently, it seems courts keep a criminal’s name secret because they have previously been clean people… or at least seemed to be. Perhaps these are the very people who should be outed. Their respectable looks can con people, so the public needs a heads up to be cautious around them,” they said.

Strong and Tyler also said that “the real mockery” of the country’s suppression laws is that they don’t work in the highly connected digital age.

“When suppression was first introduced in 1920 there was no internet, no social media, in fact, no television. The courts could control publicity by restricting newspapers,” they said. “But times have changed, information is no longer controlled. This is demonstrated time and again when New Zealand journalists are prevented from publishing a criminal’s identity on official news media sites, but the information is still circulated widely by overseas social media sites.”

They said that while suppression prevents the public from pre-judging people without hearing the evidence and protects innocent people closely related to the criminal from unwarranted consequences, it is valuable for the public to know the identities of people who are clearly guilty or have been found guilty by the courts.

“We are largely a well-educated public and can determine if we want to hire someone with a criminal past and give them a chance, or not,” they said. “It appears that the 100-year-old suppression practices are past their used-by date.”