Content warning: sexual assault 

A Wellington man currently on trial for eight sexual offences has interim name suppression. Do people get name suppression just for being high-profile in New Zealand? Let’s explain.

In short: no, says Robert Stewart, one of the country’s leading media law and defamation barristers. 

About ten years ago a change was made to the law, he said, “after there was a sentiment that some high profile sportspeople were getting suppression just because of the fact that they were well known and famous.”

The rules around name suppression are laid out in the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 which says “the fact that a defendant is well-known does not necessarily meet the bar”.

High-profile people need to meet the same standard as anyone else for name suppression

First, they need to convince a court there would be serious consequences for having their name public - most commonly that it would cause extreme hardship or that it would affect their right to a fair trial.

Next, the court needs to weigh up whether the person’s argument for suppression outweighs the public interest in identifying the person. 

Stewart said the courts have made it clear it has to be a very strong argument, because of the importance of open justice and freedom of expression.

Judges aren’t out here protecting the elite, he said. 

He said it’s quite the opposite, citing the case of boxer Joseph Parker, who lost his bid for name suppression when he was linked to a case involving methamphetamine importation, but was never charged.

“He wasn't even a defendant and the courts decided that even though he was going to suffer undue hardship, when they did the balancing exercise, they thought it was important for the public to know how the trial had been run.”

Why did the Wellington man get name suppression?

The judge in the case, Andrew Becroft, ruled that naming the defendant (the man accused of the sexual offences) would create a real risk of prejudice to a fair trial.

Judge Becroft said in a pre-trial ruling the matter attracted “what might be called a firestorm of social media interest a couple of years ago when it first came to a head”, leading to public meetings and people being urged to come forward to the police.

Judge Becroft said his prime concern was publishing the defendant’s name “could ignite, if not another firestorm or avalanche, then at least an outpouring of social media commentary”.

Juries must decide a verdict based only on the evidence presented in court, not anything else.

Judge Becroft said he understood the public interest in knowing the defendant’s name, but “the risks are too high” and “fair trial concerns must prevail”.

Even though Judge Becroft would make strong directions to the jury to “keep well clear of social media and … not to make their own enquiries,” there was a real risk a jury member might see social media posts about this case, he said, and that if that happened the trial would be put at risk, which could lead to an aborted trial or a re-trial.

This would cause delays and be costly, and would likely mean witnesses, including the young women complainants, would need to give their evidence in court all over again, Judge Becroft told jurors on the first day of the trial.

Name suppression covers more than just their name

Name suppression covers any information that could lead a member of the public to identify the person. 

This obviously includes their name, but also photos of them, and can include their address, occupation, their voice, or their relationship to other people involved in the case, because a member of the public could piece together these details to identify the individual.

In the case of the Wellington man, Judge Becroft has also suppressed the suburbs where the offending took place, the exact dates of the offending, and the ages of the young women involved.

Media are allowed to report on the alleged incidents in general terms, mentioning the year and that they happened in the Wellington region, but nothing more specific than that.

The name suppression in this case is only temporary, until the end of the trial 

The defendant has only been granted interim name suppression. Judge Becroft said he would need “significant persuasion” to continue name suppression after the jury verdict.

In general judges don’t often grant permanent name suppression, barrister Robert Stewart says. 

“If they've been convicted they've got virtually no chance, unless it's going to hurt a connected person.”

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