Public perceptions of the Judiciary

"There can be little doubt that an independent judiciary is the cornerstone of our democratic system of government" (Williams, Darryl, 2001). This quote, delivered by the Attorney-General of Australia at a recently held judicial conference summarises the importance of the judiciary to the people of Australia. To put it simply, without the ongoing functioning of the judiciary, all notions of justice, fairness and equity in Australia would completely disappear, to be replaced with crime, corruption and disorder.

The judiciary is defined as "the systems of justice and courts of law in a country". This title encompasses the areas of litigation, civil wrongs (torts), the people involved in the court (judges, barristers, lawyers, the police, government officials, the jury and the community) as well as the entire court hierarchical structure. The role of the judiciary is to ensure the administration of impartial civil and criminal justice. At the time of writing, the public opinion of the judiciary is for the most part negative, and this is largely as a result of the media's influence on the public.

It is critical that this preconception is swiftly rectified, through either education, truth in media, review of the judicial selection process or the implementation of a Judicial Public Relations Council (JPRC). Of these proposed resolutions, the one that offers the best long-term influence would be to look at the introduction of a Judicial Public Relations Council, since this solution incorporates practical resolutions to both the judiciary and the wider community.

The judiciary is composed of a number of stakeholders, all of whom play an integral role in the execution of justice, and the involvement and coordination of each of whom is critical to the continued wellbeing of the judiciary. The primary stakeholders are the judges who sentence the defendants themselves, the jury who determine the guilt of the defendant, barristers and lawyers who provide legal advice and represent their clients in the courtroom, and representatives from police and government departments, whose involvement is often required to give evidence in certain trials and cases.

Also, the community itself is a primary stakeholder in the legal process, as each decision handed down through the judicial system affects the public in some way, either directly or indirectly. In Australia's legal system, it is expected that the judges are completely impartial when it comes to the verdict of a case, i. e. they are not supposed to have any interest in the outcome of the judicial process, their only concern is that justice is carried out to the fullest.

However, lawyers, barristers, defendants and the public all have an active interest in the outcome of the judicial process. The public has a particular interest in the outcome of cases and trials, and it is this special interest that often leads to media criticism of the judicial process, which is one of the issues today's judiciary faces. In today's day and age, the biggest issue that the Australian judiciary faces is not corruption in the courts or biased juries, but rather the public perception of the system as a whole.

For the most part, Australia's judiciary is first-rate, and overseas correspondents, such as American legal strategist Tracey Cain, have commented on the effectiveness of the system, and its 'infallibility and uprightness' when it comes to sentencing. However, regardless of outsider opinion, the overwhelming attitude of the Australian people towards the judiciary is of an inequitable, unfair and unjust organisation. In fact, the judiciary is increasingly being painted as an "obstacle to justice rather than the guardian of it" (Cain, Tracey, 2002).

According to a recent survey conducted on public perceptions of the judiciary (see appendix A), the Australian community perceived a number of flaws in the judiciary. The most prominent of these are lenient sentencing, subjective decision making by judges and also excessive remuneration for judges. It is interesting to note that although the majority of the respondents were quite happy to make critical judgements on the judicial system, approximately 25% admitted that they did not posses even a basic knowledge of the Australian legal system (see figure 1).

In addition, of the 75% of participants that claimed they had a general understanding of the system, some 17% did not know who decided the guilt the defendant in court, and some quite obviously did not even know what mandatory sentencing was. This research reinforces the fact that public opinion of the judiciary is based on media reporting and other preconceptions, rather than hard and fast facts.

For example, 65% of respondents thought that judges often handed down sentences that were too lenient for the crime, with a number of participants mentioning heinous crimes, such as rape and murder, even though they had no particular knowledge of the intricacies and details of each particular case. It is when people start making judgements like this based on the media or word of mouth that the public confidence in the judiciary is eroded. This is one example of when the public has a perceived issue that is actually not true.

Another example of these public presumptions is the issue of the remuneration of judges. A staggering 58% of the survey respondents deemed judges overpaid (see figure 2), even though they have little knowledge of the issue itself. In fact, a survey conducted by Compinsight(tm) (www. compinsight. com) found that almost 75% of the Australian population believed that judges were remunerated more than AU$400,000 a year. However, the Judicial Remuneration Tribunal (JRT) has capped judge's salaries at $258,960 for a Supreme Court judge, and $233,065 for a District Court judge.

Once again, the public preconception proves incorrect. The obvious cause of these incorrect perceptions is the media. "It is now commonplace in the media to take a swipe at an individual… to write as-fact comments that judges ignore crucial evidence, and to question the sentence handed down" (Handsley, Elizabeth, 1997). When the media purposely sensationalises (exaggerates) issues such as these, all notions of public confidence in the judiciary are banished.

The stakeholders in the judicial process, such as the judges, lawyers and the jury, all lose face in the public spotlight as a result of this blatant sedition by the media. It is this underhand and deceitful media action that must be stopped if the public confidence is to be maintained in the judiciary. Although it would be easy to completely blame the media in this scenario, this is not the solution. "Journalists are doing the job their public expects. They are a symptom, but they are not the problem" (Mitchell, Alex, 2003).

Instead, other solutions need to be found to break this self-perpetuating cycle of damage to the judiciary, and rebuild the public confidence in the system itself. The first solution which would correct the public's perception of the judiciary is education. In Australia, there is a "fundamental lack of understanding of the role, significance and value of the judiciary". (Cain, Tracey, 2002). Put simply, the public is making uninformed preconceptions regarding the judiciary. Ironically, although the media is one of the antagonists in this situation, the media also provides the solution.

The implementation of a nation-wide advertising scheme emphasising the importance and strength of the judiciary could manipulate the public's opinion in favour of the judiciary, rather than the sensationalised and biased version that mass media distributes. The establishment of a publicly accessible legal information system could also promote awareness of the effectiveness of Australia's judiciary. The second solution would be to enforce the notion of 'truth-in-media'. It is important to make the public understand that the media is a commercial profit-making organisation.

Therefore, mass media uses evocative language and scandalous viewpoints to make a profit. The short-term solution to combat this would be the implementation of a media watchdog panel, which could effectively regulate the more controversial aspects of media stories relating to the judiciary. The long-term solution would be to introduce a new section to tertiary journalism courses, which would deal with the importance of truth in media, and the concepts of fairness and impartiality.

These aforementioned solutions would improve the public's perception of the judiciary, leaving only the legitimate criticisms to be addressed. The introduction of a legislatorial code of conduct for judges would help improve the issue of judges being biased, as would the introduction of a Judicial Public Relations Council (JPRC) which could accept comments and criticism from the public and incorporate them into the judicial process to improve it furthermore. One final solution to deal with criticisms of lack of judicial education would be the introduction of 'specialist judges'.

This would mean, in a hypothetical situation, that a person who worked as a commercial advisor for seven or more years could complete a course in law (2-3 years) and then apply for the position of a judge specialising in the area of commercial litigation. This solution would quell complaints from the public of judges' lack of training in specialist areas, as well as enhancing the level of equity in today's courtrooms. The judiciary represents the underpinnings of justice in our society. It is absolutely critical that the public realises this, and appreciates the fairness and even-handedness of the current system.

Hopefully, with the implementation of the aforementioned solutions, Australia's judiciary can regain its status as one of the best examples of its kind in the world. The implementation of truth in media, legal education for the public and legislature concerning judges' behaviour should all help restore public faith in the judicial system. "It is possible to start people back on the track to regarding judicial activity as sacrosanct, or close thereto" (Cain, Tracey, 2002), it is just a matter of taking the first step.


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