A barrister has taken umbrage after an unidentified person uttered the word “fuckwit” during an online hearing in Victoria’s supreme court, with the judge later stating the speaker probably thought the comment wasn’t audible and “people are entitled to have their thoughts”.
The barrister, Richard Edney, was acting on behalf of a man who had pleaded guilty to robbery and was clarifying a question to a witness during cross-examination when he was interrupted on Tuesday.
“What was that?” Edney said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “I heard an expletive, your honour. I don’t know who it was from.”
Justice Andrew Tinney said he also heard it but did not know who had said it.
Edney said he was “just appalled that someone would use that word, probably directed towards me”. The judge responded: “I must say I don’t know the explanation for that.”
The barrister then asked if the judge could check who was involved in the online hearing so the man who had spoken could be identified.
Virtual hearings have been commonplace in Victorian courts since March 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.
In the supreme court, those involved in cases are provided links that allow them to participate in the proceedings, while the public is given access to a feed of the hearing but generally can’t participate.
Edney asked the person to identify themselves and explained it was rare to be called a fuckwit during cross-examination. Tinney encouraged the barrister to “not take it personally”.
“Obviously whoever said it didn’t intend it for your ears,” the judge said. “I agree, it certainly shouldn’t have been said in a way that was audible to you or the court. I mean I can go down that path if you like, but I’m just not sure that anything is gained by that.”
After Edney and Tinney agreed the culprit was not Ray Gibson QC, the crown prosecutor, the aggrieved barrister again pressed for whoever was responsible to own up.
“It leaves only a small amount of male voices online. I would appreciate an apology from the person who said it before I continue. It’s totally unacceptable. I’m doing my job.”
The judge agreed it was totally unacceptable but said Edney should proceed with cross-examination as “I don’t know for sure who it was”.
“I’m absolutely certain that whoever said it had no knowledge or expectation that it was going to be audible to you, so people are entitled to have their thoughts, and even mutter them under their breath at times, but I really don’t think there’s anything standing in the way of you proceeding,” Tinney said.
But Edney had forgotten his line of questioning – saying “that’s the problem when someone interjects in such an awful way, your thoughts are thrown for a moment” – before he was reminded by the crown prosecutor.
“I’m grateful, Mr Gibson. He’s always an impeccable prosecutor,” Edney responded.
The barrister’s client in the case is a man who robbed two brothers who were waiting for a bus in Melbourne’s north-west in September 2019. One of the brothers was fatally stabbed during the incident by a different man.
Tinney will hand down his sentence at a later date.
This story was updated on 4 August 2021 to correct the name of the crown prosecutor.