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  • Courts selling Magistrates' records for profit
  • By Damien Carrick
  • 14/06/2000 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: BigJoe ( 1 article in 2001 )
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COMPERE: After the Australian business number data privacy row and the one about the electoral rolls being used to help the Prime Minister write us all a letter comes a similar controversy about the court system.

It seems that in some jurisdictions, courts are selling their records to credit reporting agencies for profit. Last financial year the Victorian Government earned at least $60,000 from such sales. But as Damien Carrick reports, there's growing opposition to them.

DAMIEN CARRICK: The Victorian Government currently has contracts with three credit reporting agencies to provide electronic access to the records of the Magistrates Court.

Victorian Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, says he doesn't have a problem with commercial trade in court records. He says wide access to court records promotes an open and accountable justice system.

ROB HULLS: Any individual can actually search court records, after they've paid a fee. That fee is actually $12.50 for five minutes - it's a time-based fee so the public can have access to the court register database. But credit reference agencies, who are high volume users, have now entered into a contractual arrangement with the Magistrates Court whereby they actually pay a fee of $1.20 per order so they can search the court register on line. That, of course, frees up workers at the courts to do more appropriate work but also it ensures that those credit reference agencies get an up-to-date and accurate record of any information that's held at the court.

DAMIEN CARRICK: But Tim Dickson, Chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation, says the public interest isn't served by the commercialisation of court records and the bulk discount offered to credit reporting agencies is inappropriate.

TIM DICKSON: At $1.20 a record, that's pretty cheap, you know. As direct marketing lists go, that is pretty cheap and the potential for abuse . for example a pawnbroker who gets hold of the information, who maybe starts tele-marketing, the potential to the other members of the family who didn't know that there was a credit problem would then find out about it. I mean, there's real potential for embarrassment, for humiliation, for things which just aren't necessary.

DAMIEN CARRICK: Victoria isn't alone in selling access to court records. Andrew Woods is the Managing Director of Credit Advantage Limited, one of the three companies with contracts with the Victorian Government. He says his company has similar contracts with several other States and Territories.

ANDREW WOODS: We get information electronically in Victoria and South Australia. There are others in which there is some electronic access but in some cases we're dealing directly with the courts and in some cases we have to send people into the court to record information manually.

DAMIEN CARRICK: Victorian Opposition spokesman on Consumer Affairs, Bill Forward, says the Attorney-General's attitude to the spread of civil court records is in stark contrast to his strident opposition to the crime net website which publishes information gleaned from criminal court cases.

BILL FORWARD: If the government is outraged that people can buy crime records then I think that in the interests of consistency they would take a long hard look at the sale of their own information through the Magistrates Court.

DAMIEN CARRICK: But Rob Hulls maintains there's no inconsistency.

ROB HULLS: The difference between this information which relates to civil debts and crime net is that crime net relates to a person's alleged criminal history and that information has potential to abort criminal trials, and that's not just me saying that, a Supreme Court Judge found that. When we're talking about matters that have been supplied by the Magistrates Court it is a matter that is indeed on the public record. It relates to civil debt and it's totally different between that particular matter and aborting criminal trials.

COMPERE: Victoria's Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, talking to Damien Carrick.


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