Conroy slammed over 'stunning' iiNet trial comments

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Conroy slammed over 'stunning' iiNet trial comments

Senator Conroy's damning commentary on iiNet's copyright infringement defence might be "grossly improper", but not in contempt of court, say legal experts.

The Federal Opposition has accused Senator Stephen Conroy of prejudicing a Federal Court case during his address to the CommsDay Summit earlier this week.

Referring to ISP iiNet's battle over copyright material with major film studios due to go to trial in October, Senator Conroy claimed he had "seen iiNet's defence under oath" and found it "stunning", comparing it to a Yes Minister episode.

Conroy had previously stated that the outcomes of the iiNet trial will influence his future policy decisions around file sharing.

In a joint statement released by Shadow Attorney General George Brandis and Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy Senator Nick Minchin, the opposition described Senator Conroy's speech as "grossly improper", with "the potential to prejudice a matter before the Federal Court."

"Senator Conroy's comments were both reckless and irresponsible; particularly considering iiNet was yet to even file that aspect of its defence and has every right to a fair hearing," said Senator Nick Minchin.

Brandis described the comments as "reprehensible" and said iiNet was "well within its rights to seek legal advice about their potential impact on its defence."

"A senior Cabinet Minister of all people should know better," Senator Brandis said. "It is totally unacceptable and could prejudice a matter before the court and damage the company's reputation in the eyes of the public."

But legal experts predict Conroy will escape legal action.

Steve White, principle of IP law group White SW ComputerLaw, said "convention" says public figures should "refrain from commenting on matters before a court," but he does not feel it would be productive to create a scenario in which the Federal Government refuses to comment on matters so vital to the public as internet copyright and filtering issues.

Legal affairs commentator Peter Moon also said it was "difficult" and "unlikely" the comments would land Conroy in hot water.

In 99 per cent of 'contempt of court' cases, Moon explained, the case is brought about because the judge presiding over a matter accuses a public figure of influencing the opinion of a jury.

In the case of iiNet vs the movie industry, the matter is being argued in front of a sole judge, without any jury.

"If Senator Conroy had said what he said about a case that involved a jury, Conroy would be standing before a court today on contempt," Moon said.

"The traditional view is that a judge has the capacity to remain unbiased, to be free of influence," he said. "I can't think of a judge-only trial where a charge of contempt was levelled.

"It would be difficult for the judge presiding over the iiNet matter to say to Senator Conroy, you are in contempt for influencing my thinking!"

It is this same legal concept that protects journalists from publishing commentaries about matters before judge-only trials and appeals cases, Moon said.

Moon said Conroy had made a "political error more than a legal one."

"I still regard Senator Conroy's comments as extraordinary," he said. "iiNet are entitled to bring a matter before a court without this kind of distraction. Normally as a matter of course a minister of state would keep his mouth shut about matters before a court."

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