The day local justice tried to shut up shop

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WORRYING SIGNS THAT the ability of the press to keep the public informed is under threat emerged briefly when HMCTS (Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service) announced that in future it would no longer supply the media – and through them the public – with details of cases due to appear in courts across the country.

The proposed information blackout was said by HMCTS to follow legal advice that revealing anything other than the names of defendants and (hopefully, but not stated!) the charges they faced would no longer be possible “due to General Data Protection Regulations”.

It would have meant that details of the victims and a brief outline of the charges and prosecution allegations would be withheld.

The shock decision was contained in an email received by www.voiceofthenorth.net

and seven other north-east journalists which stated:

“As from October, 2018 you will only be provided by HMCTS [with] a copy of the Court Public List with defendant names only.”

Mystifyingly, the email then contradicted itself, threatening that “You will no longer receive a court list due to the General Data Protection Regulations. HMCTS have been given guidance that no longer are we to provide the press with a copy of the court lists.”

The email was sent by the ‘acting centralised listing team leader’ for Northumbria’s courts, and provoked this immediate protest from VoiceoftheNorth to the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Anne Marie Trevelyan:

“This is an outrageous curtailment of the public’s right to know, data protection be damned! Anything to say, Anne Marie?”

Within minutes the MP responded, “I shall investigate. GDPR has created many anomalies. . .”

And within hours Ms Trevelyan announced that she had received assurances from the Ministry of Justice that there had been “an error” in the judgement from the HMCTS, the executive agency responsible for the administration of the country’s criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals and which is sponsored by the Justice Ministry.

“Thanks so much [for the notification]” wrote the Ministry. “What you reported is an error from one court in HMCTS. Their process on providing lists has NOT been affected by GDPR. HMCTS are going to clear it up with the Magistrates Court in question.

“Hope that reassures – please check they do as told!”

So did they? Well, not immediately.

Berwick upon Tweed magistrates court

Berwick magistrates sit on a Tuesday; the media receives notification from Northumbria the day before. Come Monday there was nothing in my inbox, so I called Northumbria central listings and was told sweetly that the court lists “would be available in due course”. They arrived, in full, an hour later.

Now I suspect the above tale will provoke suspicion – if not outright outrage – on the part of journalists who can spot the thin end of a wedge when they see one, and a ‘what is the fuss all about?’ sigh from most of the general public. And who can blame them?

Local and regional newspapers’ unapologetic abandonment of routine court reporting is a dereliction of journalistic duty which has been both a partial cause as well as the result of plummeting circulation figures.

What more compelling reading in the local rag than details of who did what to whom and what punishment has been decided? In the newspapers of my early career, court reports detailing what the bad lads and lasses of a town got up to were always staple fare alongside wedding reports and obituaries, emergency chemists rosters and lighting-up times.

The discontinuation of that once vital reader service (which invariably provided the bonus of innumerable human interest stories) along with a reduction in coverage of town and parish councils and their committees (plus reporting other, similar, areas of open government and justice) is a dereliction of press duty which, sales figures indicate, has already had a devastating impact.

Local newspapers which cut staff numbers rather than reduce shareholders’ dividends have slashed resources to the point where manning the judicial press benches is not an option, much less employing full-time courts and councils reporters.

Little surprise, then, that controlling governments of every political complexion who see media attendance as an unwelcome intrusion should decide that if we, the press, are not going to turn up then they, the politicians, are not going to encourage our participation.

I have written before of my fears for a world without watchers, particularly at the lowest local level, and of our governors’ reluctance to make the workings of the justice system transparent and available. We, the media, do little to challenge that growing situation.

The press has no more rights than members of the public. It exists to represent a public which has things to do other than sit through tedious hearings on the lookout for something ‘important’.

So why are court lists only available to certified members of the press and not to the general public?

Why are the results of court hearings from the lowest to the highest in the land not made available via website and courtroom and police station noticeboards?

Isn’t a public display of the outcome of charges – guilt AND innocence – part of the display of justice, which must be SEEN to have been done?

As the Minister of Justice said to my MP: “Make sure they do as they are told!”

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks David (and Anne Marie). A very important topic and more power to the press for access to information like this.

  2. As David says there is a danger of “thin end of wedge” here. Justice must be administered in the open.
    I expected there would be an easy website on which to see these lists.
    While the press can sometimes be too intrusive into peoples’ private lives, it is important that they are able to shine a light on what is going on in our name as citizens.
    The role of the press in picking out and highlighting what the powers that be like to hide away in the small print or obscure places is important and the Freedom of Information principles need to be maintained.

  3. There is a Home Office circular to Magistrates Courts from 1989 (circular 80/1989) on the subject of the press access to Magistrates Courts lists.

    I realise it was written before the email age, but is still relevant and can be read in response to a FOI request of mine to the Home Office.

    The text of it is here https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/370527/response/895762/attach/2/Scanned%20from%20a%20Xerox%20Multifunction%20Printer.pdf .

    I’ll just quote the relevant bit:

    “Court lists

    2. In the Home Secretary’s view, as is the current practice of most magistrates’ courts, copies of court lists should be available to the media in court on the day of the hearings and as a minimum should contain each defendant’s name, age, address and where known, his profession and the alleged offence. Where provisional lists are prepared in advance, copies should be made available on request.”

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