Fewer gain suppression

The veil of secrecy shrouding the country's courtrooms has been lifted considerably since a law change that tightened name suppression criteria for people facing criminal charges.

Latest figures released by the Ministry of Justice under the Official Information Act show a 60 per cent drop throughout New Zealand in the number of defendants keeping their names secret, from a high in the 12 months to June 2010.

That year the number of people granted name suppression in the Palmerston North District and High Courts hit a peak of 257. This fell 95 per cent to about 12 people in the year to June 2013.

The number of defendants granted suppression who admitted or were found guilty of charges has remained about the same.

A law change that took effect in March 2012 has tightened the circumstances in which someone can seek final suppression, with the threshold that publicity would likely cause "undue hardship" for them or others raised to causing "extreme hardship".

The law change was partly a reaction to a perception that the law treated celebrities more leniently.

New legislation includes the caveat that being well-known is not in itself a reason for suppression.

Experienced Palmerston North lawyer Fergus Steedman said suppression was now granted "more sparingly".

The law change made the process more transparent and clearer for lawyers. "You are able to say to your client: ‘You might fall within this category but you certainly don't fall within this'."

"People tend to accept that. I can't remember any occasion over the last 16 or 17 months where I have disagreed with a client."

Before last year, it was difficult to know if suppression would be granted, Mr Steedman said.

"Different judges would apply whatever discretion they had in different ways. There was much more freedom for a judge to manoeuvre than there is now . . .

"There was much uncertainty. Now, there's certainty."

Victoria University School of Law adjunct professor Steven Price said the law change had worked as intended and it was harder for people to be granted final name suppression, although he thought interim orders were more easily obtained.

It was impossible to tell from the numbers if fewer celebrities were keeping their names secret.

Mr Price also raised concern about the high number of suppression orders dished out in Palmerston North in 2009/10.

One of those was made when a prominent Manawatu man was in February 2010 sentenced to four months' home detention for downloading 300,000 pornographic images, many of children.

The man, who was arrested after an FBI investigation, faced 25 charges of possessing objectionable material and one of distributing pornographic images.

Judge Grant Fraser granted permanent suppression to protect the man's family, mental state, his wife's job and his rehabilitation.

The judge said the case was unique and the man had reached the peak of his career when police raided his house. The man subsequently lost his job.

Crown prosecutor Ben Vanderkolk argued suppression could be seen as protecting a person in a privileged position.

Suppression is often granted to an accused person in sex cases to protect the identity of the victim or complainant, while secrecy is automatic in the rare cases of incest.

In early 2011 an elderly man sentenced in the Palmerston North District Court on 21 charges, including forcing his children to have sex, raping his son's girlfriends and beating his children between 1963 and 1990, was granted final name suppression. Judge Les Atkins told him he was imposing suppression so the victims would not be identified. Editorial, P11

Manawatu Standard