A prominent Sydney barrister has backed the government’s decision to prohibit access to material obtained in private sessions of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but described the 99-year time restriction as “excessive”.
Dr Andrew Morrison SC told Lawyers Weekly that restricting public access to transcripts of private sessions, which has not have been tested by cross-examination, is “correct in principle”.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced last week (22 March) that new measures passed by Parliament will allow the Royal Commission to receive information and evidence from victims in private sessions.
There will be no right of access under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to documents containing information about these sessions. Access via the Archives Act 1983 will also be restricted for 99 years after the year the record is created.
When asked whether the restrictions will serve to protect the perpetrators, Morrison claimed the measures are necessary to encourage victims to come forward and tell their stories. He reiterated that given the alleged abuser does not have an opportunity to challenge allegations made in private sessions, releasing this information to the press would “do great injustice”.
“You can’t have people’s reputations destroyed on untested information,” he said.
Morrison did, however, question the time limit of 99 years. “30 years would have been more than ample,” he said.
Ideally, he continued, material obtained from private sessions would be made available to prosecuting authorities to inform criminal investigations, and the names of the victim and alleged abuser be kept anonymous in information released to the press.
Dreyfus indicated that the Royal Commission will put in place procedures to clarify how, and in what circumstances, information received in private sessions will be used and disclosed.
“A person giving information at a private session will have the same protections as would apply to a witness giving evidence at a hearing [and] it is important [they] feel comfortable with the way information will be used and disclosed,” he said.
The Royal Commission will hold its first sitting on 3 April at the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne.
All Commissioners will be present. The chair, Justice Peter McClellan AM, will provide information on the work of the Royal Commission, including the future conduct of public and private hearings.
The sitting will be streamed live to the public via webcast onto the Commission’s website at www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au.