Opinion Number. 1409

Subject

COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS: POWER TO HOLD PROCEEDINGS IN CAMERA: POWER TO PROHIBIT PUBLICATION OF EVIDENCE AND DECISIONS: WHETHER ACTION CAN BE TAKEN AGAINST WITNESS WHO DISCLOSES EVIDENCE

Key Legislation

COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS ACT 1913

Date
Client
The Secretary, Parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts

The Secretary of the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts has forwarded me the following minute for advice:

There have appeared in the press recently articles concerning the investigation which is being conducted by the Joint Committee Of Public Accounts into the Commonwealth Government Shipping Line. These articles contained what purported to be extracts from the evidence tendered, and the decisions arrived at by the Committee. As a matter of fact, the whole of the evidence on this inquiry has been heard in camera, and the decisions of the Committee have not yet been given.

Apart from the accuracy or otherwise of the articles and the effect they may have on the business of the Line, it appears to the Committee that there should be some means for preventing a recurrence of the publication of such matter, and I have been directed to ask that you will be so good as to favour the Committee with your opinion as to its powers under the circumstances, and whether any action can be taken, e.g., on ground of breach of Parliamentary privilege, and further, what is the position of a witness who may disclose evidence tendered by him to the Committee when meeting in camera.

The Committee has power to take evidence on oath or affirmation, and, although the Act is silent on this point, it probably has power to exclude the public when evidence is being given.

It must be remembered, however, that the Committee is not a Court and the rules relating to judicial hearings in camera do not apply. Courts are guided in this matter by the necessity of seeing that justice is done, and if evidence taken in camera before a Court is published, the proper proceedings against the publisher are those for contempt of court. (See Scott v. Scott 1913 L.R.A.C. p. 417).(1)

I think that before cases such as mentioned in the above minute can be adequately dealt with, amendments of the law are necessary providing specific power to the Committee to order the taking of evidence in camera, and making it an offence to publish evidence so taken.

[Vol. 22, p. 996]

(1) [1913] AC 417.