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Helpful access-to-court-records case

By Steven | March 25, 2008

This judgment from Harrison J is a useful addition to journalists’ armoury in their ongoing battle for access to court files.

The Sunday News wanted to see the file on Matthew Ridge’s leaky home litigation. The Registrar refused, saying that the paper needed to show “an interest [in the case] greater than that of the public at large'” (This phrase was taken from an earlier case. Alas, the cases are rather contradictory).

Harrison J said this was the wrong question. As the Court of Appeal found in McCully v Whangamata Marine Society [2007] 1 NZLR 185, the issue is whether the media has a “genuine and proper interest” [the actual phrasing of the test is “genuine or proper interest”], but the threshold is not high. The Court of Appeal said Registrars should ask whether the application for access is “frivolous or vexatious or merely prurient”.

Harrison granted access. The paper had written about leaky homes, leaky homes are a matter of public interest, and the Bill of Rights supported access. The paper didn’t need to show some special interest in the particular case.

An interesting footnote: the judge added the condition that

any article published in relation to the proceeding gives appropriate and balanced prominence to the nature of the claim and the nature of the defences.

I’m not aware of other judges adding conditions like this relating to substantive reporting. I’m not sure this is the sort of condition that’s contemplated by the rules. I’m also not sure how it would be enforced, though it would be a contempt of court not to comply. I wonder if judges will start making a habit of this…

Topics: Court records, General | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Helpful access-to-court-records case”

  1. Steve Withers Says:
    March 26th, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Sorry if this query is painfully basic, but am I right in thinking the issue here is access to court proceedings and information? having spent some time in court rooms (as an observer!!) it seems to me that we would all benefit from having easier and better access to court proceedings. As it is, if you weren’t in the High Court on the day and the media didn’t cover it – or covered it poorly (too often the case) – we may never find out what happened aside from the judgment / verdict itself. As for Matthew Ridges particular case, it seems to me that interest in his case is very likely prurient given his profile. Would the journal concerned be seeking this information so aggressively if it weren’t Matthew Ridge? Hmm.

    As for the unenforceable condition, it would be interesting to see how a judge might be informed of non-compliance. Presumably the judge or someone related to the case reading any article based on the information would be the method. What’s the judge’s Bebo page? We could leave him a comment.

  2. Steven Says:
    March 31st, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Actually it’s usually quite easy to get access to court proceedings, as Steve notes. You just toddle along to court. Where it gets tricky is when you want access to information – even if it was given in open court – produced when you weren’t there. That’s why this access to court proceedings becomes an issue about access to records. Many of the hurdles in place are unjustified, as the Law Commission found.

    I agree (as did the judge I think) that the Ridge case is mostly prurient. (Though it’s fun to see Sunday News try to spell out a public interest justification, and there is a grain of truth to it).

    The condition would likely be enforced by Ridge’s lawyers bringing any breach to the attention of the judge.


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