Procedural Fairness in Australian Children’s Court Cases   Leave a comment

Guest Blogger: Michael King

Procedural justice, therapeutic jurisprudence and problem-solving or solution-focused courts have brought increased focus on the actions of judges and lawyers in court in terms of their potential to enhance or diminish litigants’ and public respect for court orders and the justice system. With this development has come increased appreciation of the significance of language, body language and processes in the legal process.

A case decided by the Supreme Court of New South Wales illustrated how what is regarded as a common courtesy in general society when used in court may be seen to be alienating or even offensive by a party or witness to the proceedings. The case reminds judges and lawyers against complacency and of the need to be careful in their selection of language and use of mannerisms and processes.

The case involved an application to the Supreme Court in its inherent wardship jurisdiction for an order that a child be returned to the care of the mother. Exercising jurisdiction under statute, a magistrate sitting in the Children’s Court of New South Wales had placed the child in the care of the Minister for Human Services. Typically children’s courts in Australia exercise both criminal and welfare jurisdiction over children. If a child is need of care and protection, authorities can apply to the court for an order placing the child in State care or seek other orders.

Much of the judge’s decision involves the merits of the application, but the judge also examined the actions of the magistrate and one of the lawyers in court and their effect on the mother of the child. The first issue related to whether the court had properly included the mother in the process leading to the court making an interim care order. The judge held that it had not and suggested that in the process, the court may have contributed to the mother’s hostile attitude towards the Department for Human Services. The judge acknowledged the pressures of a busy court list, but stressed that even with such pressures courts should meaningfully include parties in the decision-making process.

The second issue related to certain practices used by counsel at the final order hearing. Essentially, the judge frowned on the practice of lawyers and the magistrate exchanging “good morning” or of a lawyer saying “good morning” to a witness, a practice that was used at the final order hearing.

Here are relevant passages of the judge’s decision:

The history of the proceedings

[6] The Department applied to the Children’s Court on 28 April 2009 for an interim order under s 79(1) Care Act allocating parental responsibility for Anna to the Minister. I have read the transcript. The application came before the Court on 29 April. Present were Ms Wilson, who had given birth only two days before, the Department’s solicitor and Mr Chapman, solicitor, who represented the interests of Anna. How Mr Chapman came to be appointed as Anna’s separate representative was not explained to Ms Wilson.

[7] Ms Wilson said that she would like an adjournment to enable her to instruct a solicitor. After some discussion with the Department’s solicitor and Mr Chapman, the Magistrate made an interim care order and stood the proceedings over 11 May. Unfortunately, Ms Wilson was not even asked by the Magistrate what was her attitude to the making of an interim care order. The transcript shows that the discussion seemed to be confined to the Magistrate, the solicitor for the Department and Mr Chapman, and it appears that Ms Wilson was entirely overlooked. One can imagine that Ms Wilson, without the benefit of legal representation and in a state of some shock at having her new-born baby taken from her two days previously, was in a vulnerable and confused state at this hearing. The fact that she was not even consulted as to the Magistrate’s proposed course of action and that its consequences were not explained to her by the Magistrate could well have given her an impression that her rights were being disregarded entirely.

….

Some observations about the conduct of the case in Court

[102] As I said at the beginning of this judgment, some aspects of the case call for comment.

[103] The first is the way in which the first hearing in the Children’s Court on 29 April 2009 was conducted. A reading of the transcript left me with the strong impression that what had occurred might well have contributed significantly to the hostility which Ms Wilson demonstrates to the Department and to her apparent lack of co-operation in a number of directions hearings in the Children’s Court.

[104] As I have recounted at paras 6–7 above, no one explained to Ms Wilson what was going on in court or asked her if she had anything to say. As a result of what appeared to be a rather quick and “in club” discussion between the Bench and Bar Table, an interim care order was made. The most important person in the courtroom at that time — the mother whose child had been taken from her at birth two days ago — was ignored.

[105] Every judicial officer is familiar with the pressures of a busy list and looks for a means of getting through it efficiently. The Children’s Court is a particularly fraught and stressful arena of conflict. A case such as the present shows how important it is in the administration of justice that judicial officers do their best to involve litigants meaningfully in the process by which justice is done.

[106] The second matter calling for comment occurred in the conduct of the case in this court but it is not peculiar to this case — it has been observed by a number of Judges in the Supreme Court and it is currently the subject of discussion between this court, the Bar Association and the Law Society. I refer to the practice of advocates, which seems to have developed over recent years, of announcing their appearances to the Bench or beginning the examination of witnesses with the salutation “Good morning, your Honour” or “Good afternoon, Mr Smith”. I am informed that this is a practice which has developed in the Magistrates’ Courts. The Supreme Court is of the view that it is a practice which should be abandoned in contentious litigation.

[107] Lest it be thought that this view is the relic of a stilted and now-outdated judicial self-esteem, let me illustrate, by reference to what occurred in this case, how the practice can cause substantial misperceptions prejudicial to the conduct of a fair trial.

[108] Mr Chapman, who is obviously a highly experienced and capable solicitor frequently conducting cases in the Children’s Court, routinely greeted me with the salutation of “Good morning, your Honour” or “Good afternoon, your Honour” each time he announced his appearance at directions hearings and on each day of the trial. In accordance with the usual etiquette of this court, Mr Moore of Counsel did not. Mr Chapman’s apparent familiarity with the Judge could have caused a misapprehension in the mind of Ms Wilson, already distrustful of the judicial system, that Mr Chapman enjoyed a relationship with the Judge which was something more than merely professional. Such a suspicion should never be allowed to arise. A Judge should not feel compelled to allay such a suspicion by rebuking an advocate for misplaced courtesy.

[109] More importantly, Mr Chapman routinely began his cross examination with the salutation “Good morning, Ms Wilson (or Mrs Wilson)”. He was met with a stony silence. How could Ms Wilson or Mrs Wilson greet politely the man who was avowedly intent on taking Anna away from them by destroying their evidence? A witness in their position would inevitably feel it to be the most odious hypocrisy to be compelled to return the salutation with a polite “Good morning, Mr Chapman”.

[110] Mr Chapman, of course, noted the rebuff and, on occasion, directed a meaningful look at the Bench. I do not think he intended it, but the impression which could well have been conveyed to Ms Wilson and Mrs Wilson was that, even before Mr Chapman had begun his cross examination, he had already unfairly scored a point against them because he had put them in the position in which he could say — eloquently, by a look, not even a word — “You see what rude and unpleasant people we are dealing with here, your Honour”.

[111] I wish to make it clear that, by these remarks, I intend no personal criticism of Mr Chapman. He conducted the case professionally and courteously, in what he saw to be the best interests of Anna. I am sure that, in using salutations as I have described, Mr Chapman was merely following a practice which is now routine in the Magistrates’ Courts.

[112] However, a witness should never be placed in the position of having to greet politely a cross examiner who is an avowed opponent. An advocate should never use this technique to score against a witness. It is far better to avoid the perception that this technique of discrediting a witness is being used unfairly.

[113] For these reasons, the practice of salutations by advocates should be completely abandoned in all courts in all contentious litigation.

—————

This has also been the view of judges of the Supreme Court of Western Australia, one of whom is reputed to have rebuked counsel who said good morning to the judge in court by stating “Mr Z, this is not a social occasion, it is a state occasion”. My own preference in court is for counsel to begin with “Your Honour, I appear for Mr X” or the more formal “May it please the court, I appear for Ms Y”.

The citation for the case is: Wilson v Department for Human Services [2010] NSWSC 1489. The full judgment is available at: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/nsw/NSWSC/2010/1489.html.

Dr. Michael King is a magistrate of the Magistrates Court of Western Australia and an adjunct Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Monash University.

Posted February 18, 2013 by proceduralfairness in Courts

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