JOURNALISM: Challenges around access to hearings and the disclosure of court orders and documents.

Reporters’ Charter needed to protect rights of court reporters

The introduction of a reporters’ charter would help to ensure the rights of journalists are recognised in courts, the chair of the Media Lawyers Association (MLA) has said.

Giving evidence to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into ‘open justice: court reporting in the digital age’ on Tuesday (11 January 2022), John Battle, Head of Legal and Compliance at ITN, said that reporters faced ongoing challenges around access to hearings and the disclosure of court orders and documents.

Alongside a reporters’ charter, the introduction of a central database for accessing court orders and a designated system for disclosing court documents to journalists would also help reporters work more effectively he said.

On a reporters’ charter, he said: “What I’m proposing through the Media Lawyers Association is to have a system where there is a template with the basic rights that reporters can ask for in the courts and to have the commitment of the court service itself. The right to be in court, the right to take notes, the right to have a specific place in the court, the right to Wi-Fi and the right to be told what the specific court restrictions are and so on and so for.”

Such a charter would not only ensure the rights of journalists to attend court was recognised, he argued, but it would also encourage rather than deter reporting in this area.

One of the main reasons why The Democrat seldom covers court matters in the Justice of the Peace and Sheriff Court in Dumbarton is that – unless there have been significant changes in recent years – access to vital papers can be difficult if not impossible to gain access to.

He added: “Those basic rights need to be drawn into one place so that commitment and help is given to the reporter because it is not easy. If you are going to the court every day and you are finding it difficult to determine what reporting restriction you are supposed to be applying and you are not being given access to documents which you are entitled to, it is not going to encourage reporting.”

Despite significant progress and a trend towards open justice, consideration needed to be given to a publicly funded central database for court orders and the extension of systems already in place to ensure that documents shared with lawyers could also be distributed to journalists, he said.

He added: “There are changes to the Criminal and Civil Procedure Rules which allows disclosure of documents but there isn’t a mechanism in place which allows that to happen. You have a principle without a practice, in effect.

“There are systems in place already through which information is provided from the judge to the lawyers in the court and what should happen is that more thought should be given as to what of that material could be disclosed to journalists.

“A database for court orders should be publicly funded and it would be password protected so it wouldn’t be open to the public. We have a system already to recognise who is a reporter and who is not.”

One of the big barriers to reporting, agreed Dr Natalie Byrom, Director of Research at The Legal Education Foundation, was the lack of infrastructure in place to ensure open justice.

As well as issues surrounding access to hearings and obtaining documents and decisions, an ongoing barrier was the cost of transcripts, she said.

“One of the big barriers to reporting on cases in court is the extremely high cost of transcripts. For a trial it can cost up to £20,000 to get and in a trial, when you’re trying to report in a way that is responsible and abides by all the relevant reporting restrictions, having access to that accurate information is very important. I’m finding it very difficult to understand in the context of a billion-pound reform programme how we’ve seen such a lack of focus on how we invest in infrastructure that is needed to support all those aspects of open justice.”

Looking to the future and the any extension of cameras in court, Battle said that it was important to look at the evidence which was positive so far.

He said: “There hasn’t really been problems and I think that is really important to recognise. The evidence is that it has worked – trials haven’t collapsed, there hasn’t been problems in the courts and that is a good thing. Let’s build on the evidence and move forward for filming in more courts.”

  • Around 40 years ago, our editor, along with Arnold Kemp of the then Glasgow Herald, campaigned for the courts to provide a better service for the press and public. We asked for a list of proceedings and the courts they would be held in and access to information in regard to persons appearing on petition in private. It never happened then, but it may have done now we are in the 21st century.

    Catch up on the evidence session here.

Family Courts committed to greater transparency, says President

The Family Courts are still committed to introducing greater transparency and media reporting, the President of the Family Division has confirmed.

Also giving evidence on Tuesday (11 January 2022) to the Justice Committee as part of the inquiry into open justice, Sir Andrew McFarlane reaffirmed the need for much greater openness following the publication last year of his report Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts.

McFarlane said that there remained a legitimate interest in the public having a much better understanding of what the family courts do and that this understanding was enhanced elsewhere in the justice system through media reporting.

He said: “All other aspects of the justice system are open – apart from the highly sensitive security matters – to a very large extent. It is an exception to the open justice principle that family cases are dealt with separately.”

McFarlane confirmed that a Transparency Implementation Group was currently working on how the changes included in the report could be implemented and discussions with journalists and editors at a national and local level would be undertaken to better meet the challenges of achieving greater transparency without jeopardising anonymity. The changes would also look to be piloted in two or three areas ahead of any national roll-out, he confirmed.

He said: “The main driver towards making this change is to do with public confidence in this system and that is largely delivered by the public access through the media as to what is going on.

“My experience – and most family judges will have experience of sitting in cases that have then been reported both in the family jurisdiction and the Court of Protection, which sits in public, is that journalists are very responsible and understand these issues…I have some confidence that [the changes] will be responsibly and professionally undertaken by journalists.”

McFarlane also expressed his confidence that the changes he wants to implement can be achieved through changes to the Family Procedure Rules 2010 separate from any consideration Parliament may want to give to amending Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 which currently makes the reporting of private hearings a contempt of court.

Responding to a question on whether wider reporting of the most difficult, controversial cases could result in a lower level of public confidence in the system, McFarlane said that he did not think increased reporting would exacerbate the problem.

He said: “If the case is particularly difficult, unusual or sensational, I would hope that the reporting of it would nevertheless show that the family court dealt with it professionally, properly and proportionately and the fact that it is an awful case doesn’t mean that the view that people would have of the way the court dealt with it would be itself negative.”

One comment

  1. Scotland jails Court Reporters whilst it ignore others.

    Craig Murray is the example of that.

    Or what about Ditto Mark Hirst who was raided, had his IT equipment seized, was taken to court where it was found no case to answer. This SNP Government is driven to muzzle the press.

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