A Perth magistrate has been prohibited from continuing to hear a case because midway through a trial she looked up information about it on the internet.
Magistrate Barbara Lane was hearing a trial involving the operators of a Carabooda market garden facing seven charges of knowingly allowing buildings on their property to be used as dwellings for workers, without the approval of the City of Wanneroo.
The operators denied any wrongdoing.
In the middle of the cross-examination of one of them, Ms Lane revealed that during a luncheon adjournment, she had “googled” some information about evidence given by the man relating to the labour hire companies he used.
The senior lawyer for the market gardeners immediately objected, describing the magistrate’s actions as “highly inappropriate”.
However Ms Lane refused to disqualify herself from the case saying her actions had not led to “a perception that the proceedings were being conducted unfairly…”
The case was then adjourned so the objection could be taken to the Supreme Court.
‘Breach of procedural fairness’
In his decision, Justice Eric Heenan ruled that the magistrate’s actions amounted to “a breach of procedural fairness”.
“… the private enquiries made by her Honour were not fully disclosed. There were no means by which they could be fully disclosed or verified,” he said.
“It follows that the applicants were deprived of the opportunity to ascertain the full extent and content of the adverse material, if it were adverse, or to evaluate its impact.”
Justice Heenan said there was “no suggestion … that the enquiries made by her Honour …were anything other than conscientious and innocent”.
However he said the impression may be left that “her decision on certain aspects of the case, may be based not on evidence received in the courtroom, but on other material…”.
Judicial officers including magistrates and judges are required to assess cases on the evidence presented in court and not do to their own research outside the courtroom, including using the internet or social media.
Justice Heenan ruled that Magistrate Lane should be prohibited from continuing with the case, and that there should be a retrial before a different magistrate.