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Herald on Sunday editorial: MPs tell teachers: Open door

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Maryan Street. Photo / NZ Herald
Maryan Street. Photo / NZ Herald

It is a small victory but an important one. Parliament's regulations review committee has upheld our complaint against the secrecy of teachers' disciplinary proceedings. The verdict puts a decisive foot in the door of the tribunal that dispenses the profession's justice.

The committee has urged the Teachers' Council to rewrite rules that have routinely closed its disciplinary tribunal to the public, and also recommended that the Government pass legislation to make it clear that open justice is to be the rule.

There can be exceptions, especially to protect the identities of victims of sexual offences. But these protections can be made with specific suppression orders. There is no need for a complete shroud over proceedings.

The presumption of open justice is so well established that it was a surprise to see a notice appear on the Teachers' Council website last year warning that nobody could publish a report of a case before its disciplinary tribunal, or name any party to its proceedings, without the tribunal's permission.

Many cases of unprofessional conduct have been reported over the years - usually when they also involved the criminal courts - but, strictly speaking, the council may have had the power to suppress them under a little-known rule the council adopted in 2004 under powers delegated to it in the Education Act 1989.

The Herald on Sunday challenged the rule because we believe, like the Law Commission among others, it is inconsistent with the principle of open justice necessary for public confidence in judicial proceedings at any level.

The regulations review committee has agreed. It comprises MPs from both sides of the House and is chaired by a Labour member. In fact, its Labour members, Maryan Street and Lianne Dalziel, were stronger than the Government representatives in their conviction that the rules in question are an infringement of the freedom to report and receive information of public interest.

Government members would go only as far as agreeing that the rule was "an unusual or unexpected use" of the regulatory power given to the Teachers' Council and that it was a rule more appropriate for Parliament to make.

But both sides agreed the council should change the rule to ensure proceedings are open to the public unless the tribunal orders otherwise, and that Parliament should amend the act to make that principle clear.

Surely now, the council will take that course. If it does not - or even if it does - Parliament should act. It would be better for public confidence in the teaching profession if the council was to take the initiative now.

It is not being asked to expose every teacher and their school to possibly unfair allegations, though it has to be remembered that a case does not go to the disciplinary tribunal unless the council's complaints advisory committee first finds there is a case to answer.

The council is being asked to do no more than change its tribunal's default setting from closed to open. Information should be available unless there is reason to disallow it, not as now, when all is suppressed unless the tribunal makes an exception.

The public would readily see the justification for suppressing children's identities. It could be argued the names of accused teachers should be withheld until an offence is established. The school's identity is more difficult. Its reputation is less important than the right of the community to know there is cause for concern.

The Teachers' Council has a last chance to draft a code that is fair. It must start with open justice.

- Herald on Sunday

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