Media cannot be trusted to explain decisions

Judges can no longer rely on the media to explain court decisions and should instead use the “golden opportunity” of social media to communicate directly with the public, the retiring Victorian supreme court chief justice Marilyn Warren has said.

Warren was the first female chief justice of any state and territory court and the second female chief justice in Australia, following the former family court chief justice Elizabeth Evatt.

Warren said one of the biggest changes in the 14 years since she was appointed to the position was that the media’s attitude toward the court had shifted, “often against the courts”, and that judges “cannot rely any more on the media for the spread of information”.

She made the comments at a farewell ceremony in the Banco courtroom of the supreme court of Victoria on Wednesday, the same courtroom where she dressed down three federal ministers in June for calling her and her colleagues “hard left activist judges”.

The ministers’ remarks were made in response to a media report of a sentencing appeal for a man charged with terrorism offences, despite none of the ministers having sought or read the court transcript. They apologised at Warren’s request.

Warren said she had “never found the reason why judgments are not read more widely” and advised judges to write with simpler language so they may bypass the media and be read by the general public.

She said the ability to share judgments and sentencing decisions on social media was a “golden opportunity” to help the public understand the court.

“Sentencing attracts much public comment,” Warren said. “Nearly everyone has an opinion. I have found sentencing the hardest part of the job, trying to find the correct sentence for the circumstances.”

Warren graduated from Monash University 1974 and was admitted to practise law in 1975, after becoming the first woman to take articles in the Victorian public service. She worked as a public service lawyer for 10 years before being made barrister in 1985 and QC in 1997.

She was appointed trial judge in the Victorian supreme court in 1998 and made chief justice in 2003. She has issued more than 1200 judgments.

The Victorian Bar Council president, Jennifer Batrouney, and the Victorian Law Association president, Belinda Wilson, praised Warren’s advocacy for the advancement of women in law.

“Time and time again, your honour reached back to mentor and inspire,” Wilson said.

Wilson said a photo published in the Law Institute Journal last month of 21 women who hold high offices in law, including the high court chief judge Susan Kiefel, the family court chief judge Diana Bryant and Warren herself showed that Warren had achieved her aim “to remove the token aspect (of women in law) and make it the norm”.

Warren said there was more to be done to ensure the presence of women both on the bench and at the bar table in the supreme court.

“We have so many excellent women barristers and lawyers,” she said. “We should see more of them in court and more often.”

Women make up two-thirds of law graduates but hold only one in 10 senior or Queen’s counsel positions.

Warren also said courts needed to do more to reconcile Indigenous and western legal understandings of justice and to address the over-incarceration of Indigenous people.

Aunty Joy Murphy, a senior Wurundjeri elder, thanked Warren for her support of the Koori community, saying that she allowed young Indigenous people “to be able to stand in a court of law knowing that they are given that identity and being recognised”.

“Can I say your presence has been so rewarding in so many ways to our people, and especially our younger women,” Murphy said. “It has given them belief, it has given them strength and it has given the hope that no matter where they are, there is somewhere they can get a new start.”

The new Victorian chief justice is the former appeal judge Anne Ferguson. (The Guardian)

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