Three senior federal government ministers from Victoria, nicknamed the "Yarra Three", have escaped being charged with contempt of court after they made a full apology for criticising judges with comments in the media while appeals were still taking place.
Last week, human services minister Alan Tudge, assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar and health minister Greg Hunt were hauled before the Victorian Court of Appeal after giving statements to The Australian newspaper criticising judges who were hearing two sentencing appeals.
The ministers' comments against the judges were printed on the front page of the newspaper and later spread on social media. Sukkar's comments included calling the judges "hard left activist judges", while Hunt suggested the court was running an "ideological experiment" on terror sentences.
At a hearing last week, the Commonwealth's solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue, representing the ministers, who were not in attendance, said they regretted making the comments but did not apologise for them. After pressing from the judges, the three ministers each withdrew their most egregious remarks.
But on Friday, Donaghue said the MPs were now sorry and fully retracted their previous statements. The ministers again did not appear in person.
“Since the hearing before the Court of Appeal last Friday, each of us has watched the recording of that hearing and read the transcript of the Court of Appeal hearing on 9 June,” Donaghue told the court on behalf of the ministers.
“As a result of hearing both of those things, we have realised that we should have offered our unconditional apology to the court for our comments to The Australian on 13 June.
"We offer that apology now and unreservedly withdraw all comments made in relation to this matter.”
The court accepted the apology and retraction, choosing not to go ahead with possible contempt charges, which could have seen the Turnbull government's slim one seat majority at risk.
If the MPs were convicted of the charges they faced possible disqualification from parliament, which would have triggered by-elections in the three Victorian seats.
After hearing the apology, Victorian chief justice Marilyn Warren labelled the ministers' behaviour "appalling":
The delay is most regrettable and aggravated the contempt. However the court accepts that the ministers have sufficiently acknowledged and accepted their contempt of court and sufficiently purged their contempt.
There is one matter we emphasise, the court has accepted in this instance the apologies and retractions proffered.
It should not have come to this, namely two court hearings.
The court states in the strongest terms that it is expected there will be no repetition of this type of appalling behavior.
It was fundamentally wrong.
The Australian, which published the ministers' quotes, also escaped charges after a lawyer representing the newspaper apologised to the bench and retracted the story at a hearing last week.
As BuzzFeed News revealed earlier this week, Tudge and Sukkar did not just give the comments to The Australian newspaper, but posted them on their Twitter timelines and Facebook pages, leading to dozens of similar comments from the public that were critical of the judges.
Their timelines were scrubbed in the wake of the initial hearing before the court.
After the decision on Friday, the president of the Law Council issued a statement praising the apology from the trio.
"Apologising to the court, and fully retracting earlier comments, was the right thing to do," Fiona McLeod said. "It shows respect for the separation of powers and the rule of law.
"While it is open to anyone to comment on decisions by the courts, it is inappropriate to make comments which can be construed as attempting to influence outcomes of pending decisions, or which tend to undermine public confidence in the judiciary."
The senior minister's original quotes were about the Victorian judges hearing two appeals, including one against the 10-year jail sentence of Sevdet Ramadan Besim, who had planned to carry out a terror attack on ANZAC Day in 2015.
Against the dramatic backdrop of the senior ministers' hearing and possible contempt charges, Besim's jail term was this morning increased to 14 years.