Should ancient laws that make it a criminal offence to publicly criticise and 'scandalise' Australian courts be abolished?
The contempt charge of 'scandalising the court' is ripe for a challenge, according to UNSW law student Eli Fisher, who's been named the inaugural winner of the Australian and New Zealand Media Law Medal, from the Centre for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne University.
Eli outperformed other finalists in Melbourne recently with a 10 minute presentation before a distinguished judging panel: former High Court Judge Michael Kirby, Melbourne Law School Professor Andrew Kenyon, and Fairfax Media's Gail Hambly. He also had to write a 5,000 word essay.
Apart from the medal, Eli won $1,500 in prize money and the opportunity to develop the essay for publication in the journal Media and Arts Law Review.
"The big prize was to meet the judges involved. It was a huge honour," Eli said.
He attributed much of his success to his lecturer, who had encouraged his passion for media law.
"I'm really interested in defamation and vilification laws, free speech and censorship. I want to practice media law at some stage," said Eli, who's in his final year of graduate law.
Eli's winning paper focused on an area of the law that criminalises public criticism of Australian judges where such criticism is seen to undermine public confidence in the courts.
"It doesn't really have a place in modern jurisprudence. When you compare it to other countries' approach to free speech, it's pretty outdated," he said of the contempt law, which paradoxically has had a resurgence in Australia over the past decade.
"I showed how Australian judges had expanded this particular law and pointed out how self-serving and anomalous those expansions really are. Then I compared the Australian situation to other countries and noted that Australia is heading in a very different direction. Finally, I basically made a case for its abolishment."
The argument may have won Eli the competition, but delivering it in front of Michael Kirby, a former High Court judge and one of the most brilliant legal minds in the country, was a bit nerve-wracking, Eli said, especially given the judge had recently expressed some support for the law.
"A soon as I finished Michael Kirby had a big mischievous grin on his face and he couldn't wait to get into it with me, so that was pretty exciting. To be critiqued by someone of that calibre was amazing."
Jason Bosland, Eli's media law lecturer, said the performance was exceptional, despite the stiff competition.
"He was a great ambassador for the law school and, above all, an extremely gracious winner," Bosland said.
Media contact: Steve Offner, UNSW Media Office | 02 9385 9107