Three federal ministers have withdrawn comments about Victoria’s judges, but did not apologise

Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt. Picture: Getty Images

Three senior Australian government ministers have withdrawn critical comments about the way judges were handling terror cases when ordered to explain themselves in the Victorian Court of Appeal.

Health minister Greg Hunt, human services minister Alan Tudge and assistant ­treasurer Michael Sukkar, all lawyers, did not appear in court and were represented by Commonwealth solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue QC, who read a statement to the court expressing regret, but despite being asked about an apology declined to offer one.

All three ministers could be charged with contempt of court for their comments because the Court of Appeal is currently considering appeals on the sentencing of two convicted terrorists.

The ministers were ordered to explain themselves before the Court of Appeal today “to make submissions as to why you should not be referred for prosecution for contempt”.

The trio were critical of the judiciary in comments in The Australian this week that referred to “hard-left activist judges” and described the legal system as being subject to “ideological experiments”.

Earlier this week, the president of the Judicial Conference of Australia, justice Robert Beech-Jones condemned the remarks as “unfounded, grossly improper and unfair”.

Today in the Court of Appeal, the ABC reports that Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said there were concerns the comments were “an attempt to influence the court” during the two appeals, as well as “scandalise the court” and “improperly undermine public confidence in the administration of justice in this state”.

“Given that the court’s decisions in both cases were pending, the court is concerned that the attributed statements were impermissible at law and improperly made in an attempt to influence the court in its decision or decisions,” she said.

Donaghue told the court the trio “did not intend to undermine public confidence in the courts” and made the remarks in good faith.

Fairfax Media reports that Donaghue initially told the court the ministers would not retract their comments, before changing his advice and withdrawing later in the proceedings.

“We regret using language that is capable of conveying that meaning,” the ministers said in a statement read to the court.

Justice Mark Weinberg said: “I haven’t heard you say there is an apology”.

“You have heard regret as to the choice of language,” the solicitor-general replied.

Counsel representing The Australian apologised to the court.

The court has reserved its decision on what action, if any, it will take against the ministers.