Yesterday’s proceedings of the Royal Commission into Management of Police Informants saw a response to concerns from news publishers about the extent to which the hearings have been conducted away from the public eye.
Responding to a letter from news publishers – sent by national firm Macpherson Kelley – commissioner Margaret McMurdo said her role in moving the commission forward in public was “akin to a boxer fighting a match with one hand tied behind his back and the other bruised and bleeding”.
But, she added, “I am still upright and focused on a positive conclusion”.
The letter, commissioner McMurdo said, “raises major concerns” about the extent of suppression orders being applied for by Victoria Police.
Such orders are creating “a new regime of secrecy”, it was argued.
The commissioner explained, however, that there is a need to balance public interest and the personal safety of those involved in or referenced by the proceedings.
“This may not always be obvious, because applications for suppression and my reasons are not always in public. Sometimes this is unavoidable, as sometimes it could put a person's life at risk. Sometimes, it will be appropriate for accredited media to make submissions to be present at closed hearings. The issues raised in the letter are challenging ones.”
In consideration of media requests for the scrutinisation of applications for suppression orders and the closing of proceedings to the public, commissioner McMurdo said that, where possible, media outlets would be given notice whereby challenges to future applications for suppression could be undertaken.
“In my view, moving forward, and treating each case on own merits, I think this is the best way to appropriately balance the competing tensions between public access to these hearings, and protecting those who are at risk of physical harm.”
Also dealt with yesterday were concerns about the extent to which Victoria Police have been forthcoming with the commission.
Counsel-assisting Chris Winneke QC informed the commission, prior to former police officer Stephen Campbell taking the witness stand, that it had come to light that policeman Sol Solomon – “who has perhaps an intimate knowledge and significant involvement in the matters that this commission is looking into” – had provided a statement to Victoria Police in January that was only received by the commission last week.
“The commission is concerned as to why that statement hasn't been provided by Victoria Police at all despite the fact that Notices to Produce were being issued to it by the commission since January of 2019. It’s troubling, commissioner, that that statement hasn’t been provided by Victoria Police,” Mr Winneke said.
Commissioner McMurdo agreed that it “certainly” was a troubling revelation, and “absolutely” concurred with Mr Winneke’s comment that “the commission is concerned not only about that but whether there are any materials which are in the possession of Victoria Police which haven’t been provided”.
When asked about the failure of Victoria Police to produce the document, counsel Renee Enbom said that “there was no intention whatsoever to deliberately withhold this document from the royal commission”, and that she was seeking instructions as to why the document was not produced at an earlier stage.
Round three of the public hearings continue. You can follow the Lawyers Weekly live blog of the proceedings here.