Why the thought of court reporting terrifies me

I’m no coward. I’ve been on the wrong end of a deer hunt in Scotland

A typical Scottish mountain valley, courtesy of 1Sock on Flickr

(navigational errors on an Outward Bound course), had to cut short a visit to family due to a Tamil Tiger incursion in the neighbourhood (back when the LTTE were still an armed terrorist force) and, on the same visit, saw the flight I was due to leave the country on blown up by suicide bombers (on the ground at the terminal – thankfully very few people were injured) a few days before I was due to get on it. None of this shook me in the slightest. As it happens, I thought the Sri Lankan TV’s idea of broadcasting pictures of the bombers’ mangled corpses was a pretty neat idea. What does scare the bejesus out of me, though, is the thought of going into a court as a journalist.

All NCTJ students have to sit exams in media law as part of the course. Personally, I tihnk it’s a darn good idea that we’re made familiar with the relevant bits of the law before we’re let loose on some unsuspecting publication, although the lazy student in me does question why I have to learn all sorts of irrelevant crap by heart.

Gorden Kaye - alias Rene from 'Allo 'Allo

Why would a reporter need to know that Gorden Kaye, of Allo Allo fame, was accosted by two reporters while he was semi-conscious in hospital? This is what happens when you allow lawyers to start setting exams rather than just writing the questions … but I digress.

But what genuinely scares me is the number of impenetrably Byzantine laws surrounding the reporting of court cases. As a member of the public I used to glance over reports of ongoing trials and wonder why they almost always lacked interesting detail. Now, as a half-trained hack, I understand why these reports contain virtually no detail – and I hope to hell that I never end up having to cover something in court.

For starters, taking any kind of camera into court is illegal. To be precise, it constitutes a strict liability offence under Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925. This not only includes the courtroom, but the “precincts”

Taking photos in the car park of Loughborough Magistrates' Court could be illegal. Image via Phil McIver, Flickr.

of the court itself; apparently case law holds that this can even extend off the property of the court itself onto the pavements surrounding it and so on. This makes sense, inasmuch that witnesses do need protecting from excessive outside influences.

What doesn’t make sense is Section 9(1)(a) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which expressly forbids the bringing in “any tape recorder or other instrument for recording sound”. Why? What possible motive could there be for prohibiting the simplest method of recording court proceedings? It smacks of arbitrariness to me – and, conveniently, it also keeps shorthand writers in employment.

I could go on, and talk about the automatic reporting restrictions triggered by the arrest, or issue of a warrant of arrest for a suspect, or the charging of a suspect, or issue of a court summons. These restrictions make it a criminal offence to state anything other than a suspect’s name, age, occupation, address and the offence as written on the charge sheet. If you, the reporter, dare tell the public more than those dry and dusty facts, you are committing a strict liability offence punishable by prison, hefty fines or both.

But these are just the start; a court can impose anonymity orders at will, using the powers granted them by Section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This power gives judges carte blanche to prevent the reporting of … well, whatever they feel like, without let, hindrance or method of appeal at all. Judge thinks ‘such and such’ matter might be a bit embarrassing if it got out? No problem, bang a section 11 order on it and threaten to jail anyone who dares challenge you. Don’t pass ‘go’, don’t collect £200 – contempt of court is an instantly jailable offence.

Even worse is Section 47 of the Youth and Criminal Justice Act 1999, which not only allows judges to impose severe reporting restrictions, but even allows them to prohibit reporting of the fact that the restrictions themselves exist! Naturally, any breach of this sort of thing instantly lands the hapless hack with a hefty fine.

Mr Justice David Eady, who was criticised by Paul Dacre (editor of the Daily Mail) for his attempts to introduce a privacy law "by the back door".

It’s no wonder at all that the public have lost confidence in the court process, seeing as how these powers are regularly used. Judges, already unaccountable to anyone, can use these to manipulate what the media can report about the goings-on in their courts and effectively silence any coverage that they deem undesirable. Of course, there isn’t any central repository or restricted acccess website or similar where you can keep track of what restrictions are in force on a given case at any one time – you’re forced to keep attending the courtroom “just in case”, or else see yourself summarily banged up without a trial or appeal.

UK justice is broken – and this is before you look at the joke that is sentencing…

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About Gaz Corfield

B2B reporter, editor, potential entrepreneur, consumer of quality beers.
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