THE media is vindicating the independence of the judiciary, according to the Chief Justice of Western Australia.
In a speech yesterday, Chief Justice Wayne Martin said the media frequently galvanises public opinion so as to prevent government interference with a free and independent judiciary.
Chief Justice Martin said the media is a "vital bulwark" for the protection of independence of the judiciary, but also a possible threat to that independence.
There is a perception or risk that the media is "impinging upon the independence of the judiciary by a concerted programme of intimidation or vilification", he said.
Such examples are rare in contemporary Australia, he said, and such programmes are singularly ineffective in changing the attitudes or decisions of any individual judicial officer.
"There is, I think, a danger that subtly, imperceptibly and perhaps even subliminally over time, media expressions of sentiments that are taken to reflect community expectations ... might have an effect upon the attitudes of the judiciary as a whole," he said.
The Chief Justice cited the rise of the general imprisonment rate in Western Australia, which is said has more than doubled, per head of population, over the past 20 years. Over the same period, her said, the rate of offending per head of population has halved in teh past 10 years.
"Those prisoners did not get into prison by themselves, they were sent there by judges and magistrates, who, contrary to popular opinion, are today sending more people to prison and for longer than ever before," he said.
The Chief Justice said this trend has emerged over a period during which there has been intense media focus on the so-called "law and order debate", in which public commentators have repeatedly called for more and longer terms of imprisonment.
He said "it is at least possible that there is a link between that trend and media commentary on these issues".
"It is, I think, a mistake to underestimate the power of the media in shaping public opinion, or to ignore the effect which that opinion is likely to have on all three branches of government - the parliamentary, executive and judicial."
Rejecting the idea that such a trend is the result of the judiciary properly reflecting community expectations, the Chief Justice said: "It is the function of the judicial branch of government to fairly and impartially apply and enforce the law."
The reason judges in Australia are not elected and are given security of tenure is to enable them to apply the law "without fear or favour", he said.