Peregian Fire 23-10
Peregian Fire 23-10

Accused teen arsonists’ case to be heard in secret

A COURT ruling barring media from a hearing involving two teens accused of lighting a fire that ripped through a Sunshine Coast suburb has been slammed as a step toward secret justice.

Police allege the teens, aged 14 and 15, deliberately lit a fire that destroyed or damaged homes and tore through bushland at Peregian Beach, forcing hundreds of locals to evacuate.

They will appear before a Childrens Court magistrate at a committal hearing next week, but restrictive laws closing the court to the public and media representatives mean the proceedings will be effectively held in secret.

Under Queensland law, Childrens Court matters are held before a magistrate in closed court unless permission is given to the media to attend.

Media can be given entry only if the court believes it would not prejudice the child's interests. That is on top of laws making it an offence to identify children in the proceedings.

A rural firefighter watches on as as the bushfire blazes east of the David Low Way at Peregian Beach. Picture: Lachie Millard
A rural firefighter watches on as as the bushfire blazes east of the David Low Way at Peregian Beach. Picture: Lachie Millard

A magistrate must process the charges before committing the matters for trial or sentence before a judge if there is sufficient evidence, at which stage the matters are usually held in open court. That is contrast to Victoria and Western Australia, where children's court matters are generally held in open court at all stages.

Queensland Newspapers, publisher of The Courier-Mail, and five other media organisations applied for access to the Childrens Court to cover next week's committal hearing.

But the application was refused by Magistrate Stephanie Tonkin late last month after she raised concerns about "dramatic and sensationalist" media reporting on the fires.

Media law expert Justin Quill, of law firm Macpherson Kelley, said Queensland was one of the most restrictive jurisdictions in Australia when it came to Childrens Court matters and warned of a "slippery slope towards secret justice".

"There's an irony in the judgment where the magistrate criticises the media for misreporting the matter but makes it harder for the media to get all the facts to accurately report the matter," he said.

Barrister for the media applicants Patrick McCafferty had argued reporting of cases enabled the public to decide whether the justice system was fair.