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Relevance versus facts and value

By Richard Stanton - posted Wednesday, 15 February 2012

When Chief Justice Tom Bathurst of the New South Wales Supreme Court concluded his speech at the opening of the law term dinner, guests could have been forgiven for thinking they had been witness to a persuasive argument on the relevance of trial by jury.

True. They had been. But Mr Bathurst used the event to stake a much wider claim; a claim that has the potential to inject new life into a fractured social system.

His Honour began by asserting that the criminal justice system in NSW was experiencing a 'crisis of confidence'. He concluded by exhorting his legal colleagues to enliven debate, to ensure information is accurate, relevant and accessible, and to put their trust in citizens as jurors to act intelligently, fairly and diligently.


It was what he put in between the bun, however, that made the burger.

If my reading is correct Chief Justice Bathurst places a high degree of trust in the wider community but it is not reciprocated. At the same time, he is not so enthusiastic about the news media - arguing that poor perception of the criminal justice system is fuelled by 'talkback radio and tabloid journalists trading on the demand for shock and scandal'. Accurate information, he said, increases confidence in the system and this comes from broadsheet newspapers, government publications and educational institutions. The Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph coverage of the speech would have reinforced his opinion.

It was his plea to the legal community to invest more in communicating with the public to improve trust and expectations that resonated most. In this, Mr Bathurst urged defence lawyers to 'spend time on matters of relevance'.

Relevance is defined as pertinence to important current issues, while relevancy, also a noun, is the quality or fact of being relevant.

While we do not want to get bogged in semantics - what constitutes an important issue, for example - we must consider why Mr Bathurst chose to speak of 'matters of relevance' rather than David Hume's popular concept of 'matters of fact' and 'matters of value'. After all, lawyers use the word 'matter' to represent a case. Not all cases, however, are based on matters of fact.

I suspect Mr Bathurst was anticipating the meaning in his remarks would be interpreted much more widely. Relevance, for example, was applied generously throughout the carbon tax campaign. When a politician made a speech from one side of the razor wire or the other an opponent questioned its 'relevance'. In the scientific spaces both sides questioned the relevance of the matter being put forward by the other. For all its scientific underpinnings, one might have assumed that every piece of evidence and every scrap of information had relevance.


Chief Justice Bathurst provided a link to this by suggesting that distrust of the criminal justice system is in part due to misinformation - the media prefer to inflame rather than inform and politics encourages fear mongering rather than educated debate.

From this point Mr Bathurst plotted a course that took him away from the relatively manageable precipice at which the criminal justice system stands, and towards a much deeper and more complex part of the social system.

In seeking to increase trust in the criminal justice system Mr Bathurst is looking to reify society. This is not a bad thing. In seeking universal respect for the criminal justice system his real message was to those stakeholders who use moral relativism as a wedge to split off their own agenda from the core social values. He was speaking indirectly to those who hold that their own version of absolutism, or fundamentalism, is equal to every other value system thus giving them free-rein to attempt to assert their absolutism over what they see as the immorality of moral relativism.

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About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

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