A number of people have referred me to the story of a West Australian firefighter who has been acquitted following a motor vehicle accident that occurred when he was responding to a fire call under lights and siren – see Hannah Barry ‘Firefighter racing to blaze acquitted of dangerous driving charge’ WA Today (Online) November 17, 2016 (complete with a photo of a New Zealand fire appliance!)
I make no comment on the actual case, because I have no more details than anyone else. Which leads me to the actual content of this post. When sending me a link to the story, one correspondent wrote “With articles like this one where can we, the general public go to gather more information, findings and transcripts on cases like this?”
The answer is, for cases like this, you probably can’t find anything. Let me explain in more detail.
In each Australian jurisdiction, there is a hierarchy of courts that looks something like this:
The courts at the lower end of the hierarchy are the work horses of the judicial system. Magistrates Courts in particular deal with the most cases. They are dealt with relatively quickly and generally deal with less complex matters. The decision of a Magistrate is a not a binding precedent. Magistrates Courts sit across the state/territory to be close to the communities. It follows that there are so many decisions being made in Magistrates courts, that do not deal with complex issues of law and Magistrates do not have time to set out their reasons in writing. Their decisions are usually delivered ex tempore (“at the time”); that is orally and immediately after the hearing. Although the matters are recorded in case of appeals, there is no readily available transcript of either the case or the Magistrate’s reasons for decision.
Move to the top of the tree, the High Court of Australia, and every case is dealing with a complex issue of law, otherwise it would not have got there. A decision of the High Court is a precedent that every lower court must follow. Accordingly for matters in the High Court you can get a transcript of counsel’s arguments and the decision of the 3, 5 or 7 judges (depending on the case) will also be available with a very detailed analysis of the issue, the law and the reasons behind the judges’ conclusions.
The lower the court the less likely you will be able to find details. A decision from the County or District Court may be available. A decision of a judge in a Supreme Court (particularly if the case does not involve a jury) is probably available. The Court of Appeal or the High Court will certainly be available.
Where do you find them?
An excellent resource is the Australian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) – http://www.austlii.edu.au/. At AustLII you can find the legislation from each jurisdiction and the case law to the extent that the case law is available. So every decision of the High Court, occasional decisions from a Magistrates court.
If you can’t find something at AustLII there are the court websites. Sometimes they will provide access to judicial reasons, sometimes they’ll just refer you to AustLII. NSW has its own website – NSW CaseLaw https://www.caselaw.nsw.gov.au/. This site provides access to the published judgements from the NSW Courts. Again every decision of the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal, occasional judgments from Magistrates if it is felt that the Magistrate had to deal with an issue of law and his or her decision warrants publication.
The case of the firefighter acquitted after an accident during a response was heard in the WA Magistrates Court, presumably in the town of Narrogin (ie the report says he was from the Narrogin Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service so I assume the case was heard in Narrogin). If I go to the West Australian database on AustLII (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/wa/) I see that AustLII has no decisions from the WA Magistrates Court.
If I go to the website for the WA Magistrates Court (http://www.magistratescourt.wa.gov.au/) there are no decisions published there, either. (Compare that to the website of the WA District Court http://www.districtcourt.wa.gov.au/c/courtsdecisions.aspx which says “In civil cases, the reasons for most decisions by a Judge, and significant decisions by a Registrar, are published in the form of written reasons for decision. All published reasons for decision in civil cases from 1 January 2010 are available online…”)
The result is that a decision of a WA Magistrate cannot be easily found. It may be possible to get a copy of the Magistrates’ decision by making direct application to the court, but that is likely to incur a substantial cost if the court has to find the recording and either provide a copy of the recording or a transcription of the Magistrate’s decision.
I’ve previously reported on the prosecution of former NSW SES Commissioner Murray Kear – NSW SES COMMISSIONER FOUND TO HAVE ENGAGED IN CORRUPT CONDUCT (May 29, 2014). We know that Commissioner Kear was acquitted of all charges – see Michaela Whitbourn, ‘Criminal charges dismissed against former SES Commissioner Murray Kear following ICAC probe‘ Sydney Morning Herald (Online) (March 16, 2016) – but I’ve never reported on the Magistrate’s findings. Why? Because again it was the decision of a Magistrate sitting in the NSW Local Court and the Magistrate’s reasons have never been published in a public forum. Why do I say this now? Because it confirms the ‘take home message’ of this post – finding details of proceedings in a Supreme Court or the High Court is easy; in a Magistrate’s court, virtually impossible.