Open Justice: shining a light on your courts
Next week marks the start of a potentially fascinating experiment that aims to shine some light on those under-exposed parts of the justice system. ‘Open Justice week’ is a Scottish initiative that aims to use blogging, twitter and Facebook to ‘increase the transparency and accountability of the justice system’.
‘We want to create a snapshot of where British justice is in2012, and we want as many people as possible to join us,’ exhorts James Doleman, one of the people behind the ‘Open Justice’ project. Doleman is best known as the man behind the Tommy Sheridan trial blog.
The JusticeGap is supporting the ‘Open Justice’ project.
You can read our guide to court reporting written by Kim Evans below. Thanks to those who have helped putting it together.
- You can find more about ‘Open Justice’ on their site HERE.
‘As legal professionals will know, a civilian’s view of how the law works is full of half truths and misconceptions. While there isn’t a single solution to this issue, we believe that shining a light on the various aspects of the criminal and civil courts can help. That is why we decided that providing a snapshot of the legal system in 2012 could help the public better understand what happens in their name, and give an opportunity to those involved in the system on a daily basis to tell their stories to a wider audience. Our aim in the Open Justice project is to make the justice system more visible through a series of articles covering all of its facets.’
James Doleman and Cristiana Theodoli, a freelance Glasgow court reporter who co-founded the Scottish Press Club from an article in The Journal published by the Law Society of Scotland.
- You can read Philippa Thomas, a BBC reporter who live tweeted from the Stephen Lawrence trial, on her experiences HERE.
- You can read Jon Robins on the Open Justice project in the Guardian HERE.
‘It seems to me that ‘open justice’ can shine a light on the real experience of ordinary people in the courts. We are about to enter a period where the legal aid scheme is going to be filleted – £350m of publicly funded law will be stripped from the £2.2 billion budget. Shockingly, that includes nearly all social welfare (money, debt, employment, housing) legal advice. To put this into perspective, there were 53,800 family cases last year where individuals received legally aided representation before the courts (plus a further 211,000 cases where people received initial advice). All family cases are to be scrapped under the legal aid scheme unless there is evidence of domestic violence. Our courts are going to be hit by a wave of unrepresented litigants. They will become ‘the rule rather than the exception’, as the Civil Justice Council said last November. If this project exposes that and helps to lessen the consequences of such devastating cuts, it will be doing everyone a service.’
If you are interested in taking part (reporting on a case or writing about the courts), then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The JusticeGap beginners’ guide to court reporting
‘The overriding responsibility of a judge is to ensure that proceedings in court are conducted consistently with the proper administration of justice, and to avoid any improper interference with its processes. A fundamental aspect of that proper administration is the principle of open justice – fair and accurate reporting of court proceedings forms part of that principle’.
With a little preparation it is perfectly possible for a member of the public to report on a court case. You can even these days report live from court, but there are a few dos and don’ts to avoid falling foul of the judge and the laws of contempt.
This guide has been written to give you an understanding of some of those ‘dos and don’ts’. It cannot be comprehensive, but reading the guidance and links, and employing good commonsense should help you to take part in ‘Open justice’ project – ordinary people writing, blogging, and tweeting from Magistrates’, Crown, coroner’s and even the High Court.
Where to go
Firstly, decide what type of case you would like to report on. This guide is looking at criminal cases. These are split into three types: known as summary, triable either way, and indictable only.
The Magistrates’ Court deals with summary only matters (which means magistrates can convict immediately without a full trial) such as common assault, minor public order and driving offences. Crimes such as burglary, actual bodily harm and criminal damage are either way offences, which mean that they can be tried in either the Magistrates’ or Crown court. The Crown Court deals with more serious cases, indictable only, offences such as robbery, rape, and murder. The government’s Open Justice website is a useful resource and contains information on sentencing and sentencing guidelines.
The Royal Courts of Justice houses the Court of Appeal and the High Court. The appeal court hears appeals from the High Court and Crown Court, whilst the High Court hears the more important civil cases. More information can be found HERE on the Ministry of Justice site.
When to go
You can search HERE on www.thelawpages.com site for the daily court list for your chosen Crown Court (this will only tell you the name of the defendant, court number and start time). It won’t tell you what the case is, or whether it’s a trial or other form of hearing such as a sentencing or plea and directions hearing. If you want to go to the Magistrates’ court you should telephone to make sure there will be at least some hearings on the day you have decided to visit.
The BBC website has short video films describing each court, the lay-out, who sits where and what job they do HERE and you can watch a magistrate, judge and coroner each talk about their respective courts and the rules and etiquette of reporting HERE.
How to report
The next thing to decide is how you are going to report. Are you happier using pen and paper or laptop? Are you going to tweet the proceedings or write up a longer report after the case, maybe follow an entire case from start to finish? The latest guidance on the use of live text-based forms of communication can be downloaded HERE from the judiciary’s web site.
The important part is this: ‘ Where a member of the public, who is in court, wishes to use live text-based communications during court proceedings an application for permission to activate and use, in silent mode, a mobile phone, small laptop or similar piece of equipment, solely in order to make live, text-based communications of the proceedings will need to be made. The application may be made formally or informally (for instance by communicating a request to the judge through court staff).’
When considering a request by a member of the public, the paramount question for the judge will be whether the application may interfere with the proper administration of justice. Permission to use live, text-based communications from court may be withdrawn by the court at any time.
The guidance also reminds you that you cannot take photographs or use recording equipment, and that you must comply with the rules of contempt. Consider printing out a copy of the guidance to give to the court when asking for permission to report to illustrate you understand your obligations.
What to report
You are guilty of contempt if you publish or broadcast material that creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice to active proceedings, regardless of your intent.
Contempt of court is a criminal offence.
You can also be guilty of contempt if you publish or broadcast material which is in breach of a court order or other reporting restrictions.
An example of an action which MIGHT constitute serious prejudice to proceedings would be speaking to a witness who has not yet given evidence about what has taken place in court, or speaking to a juror about the case. A very important rule to remember is that anything said whilst the jury is out of court MUST NOT BE REPORTED.
Court cases are fascinating but the language can be very confusing and at times difficult to understand. Rather than trying to take down word-for-word what anyone is saying, it may be better to summarise the case as it goes along, with a few verbatim quotes for extra emphasis. You will need to distinguish in your report between the defence and prosecution advocates or counsel and must report what was said fairly. You should avoid making subjective comments about a witness or their evidence – report the facts and let the reader come to their own conclusion.
You can identify witnesses by name, but not children under 16 and victims in cases of rape and sexual assault. If you do identify someone, be aware of the law of defamation.
You risk defaming someone if you broadcast on radio, TV or online, or write something in print or online, that:
- lowers them in the estimation of right-thinking members of the public and/or
- causes them to be shunned or avoided and/or
- disparages them in their business, trade, office or profession and/or
- exposes them to hatred, ridicule or contempt.
Reports of proceedings are protected by what is known as ‘absolute privilege’. This means that so as long as the reporter produces a fair, accurate report published contemporaneously (i.e. that day or next) then they can’t be sued for libel. But that cover only extends to what is said during proceedings – any comments made outside of court by friends of family of a defendant or victim are not covered and should only be reported if they are not libellous.
Do not identify jurors in any way or speak to them about the case. Remember, if you go out for lunch you may end up in the same café and not recognise someone as a juror. Be wary about striking up conversations about cases.
If a trial is ongoing do not include any background material in your report. Only report evidence that the jury have heard.
Where to report from
You will probably need to sit in the public gallery unless you get permission to sit in the reporters’ seats. In most modern courts the public gallery is within the court room. In older courts, such as the central criminal court, or ‘Old Bailey’, the gallery is up in the gods and removed from the proceedings. It will be much harder to report from there and generally all you will see will be the back of people’s heads.
For more background on what it’s like reporting from court, read this blog by Philippa Thomas, a BBC reporter who live tweeted from the Stephen Lawrence trial, HERE.
And this report HERE which includes an article by Dominic Casciani, the BBC’s Home Affairs correspondent on the legal position on tweeting from court.
Finally, some thoughts from the ITN reporter Rupert Evelyn (@rupertevelyn) who tweeted from the trial of Vincent Tabak, convicted of murdering Jo Yeates. He found there were positives and negatives to live tweeting from a trial. He did so using a wireless keyboard and ipad, giving his followers an unparalleled view into a murder trial.
Where he found it appropriate to do so he was able to answer questions from his twitter followers – by the way, Rupert’s followers increased from 1,500 to 3,500 in three weeks. On the downside he said it was not a commitment to be undertaken lightly, and that it could be difficult to keep up with the speed of the evidence being given, you won’t be giving a verbatim account of what’s being said. Overall, he found the use of twitter to report overwhelmingly beneficial, enhancing the public’s understanding of the story, and, judging by the demand for detail in the case, a success.
The legal ‘dos and don’ts’ of reporting from court
David Banks, co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and is a media law consultant says:
- DO travel light. You will be searched upon entry to most courts.
- DO speak to an usher when you arrive and let them know why you’re there. They will know what’s happening in court and will be able to point you in the right direction for cases of particular interest. They will also warn you of any reporting restrictions.
- DO switch your phone on to silent. It’s very embarrassing when it goes off (and guaranteed to irritate the judge).
- DO get a copy of the court list, which gives names, addresses etc of those appearing in the court.
- DO get sight of the charge sheet for any case you’re reporting – it will contain a lot of detail that you are allowed to report.
- DO get a written copy of any order the court makes in respect of a case (this might be a Section 39 order for anonymity of a child in an adult court, or a Section 4 order to postpone.
- DO remember to put in the defendant’s plea, if it’s been entered by the time you’re at court.
- DO attribute all that is said in court – let the reader know who is talking.
- DO, if you tweet your report, remember to identify it as being part of the ‘open justice’ project by using the hashtag #OJ.
- DON’T put in background to the case until the end of it.
- DON’T get the charge wrong, or make it sound worse than it is (e.g, robbery is much more serious than theft because of the threat or use of violence).
- DON’T forget that the Magistrates Court Act 1980 restrictions apply to Magistrates’ court hearings that will end up in Crown Court. Learn the 10 points of the MCA restrictions
- DON’T take photographs in court. It’s illegal and you will get into a lot of trouble.
- Don’t chat in the public gallery during proceedings and respect the court proceedings (i.e., don’t laugh, tut or otherwise showing your feelings in ways that draw attention).
- DON’T forget that you are there to tell an interesting story and there are lots of them in court, don’t let legal terminology get in the way of that.
We are grateful to James Doleman and Cristiana Theodoli of the Scottish Open Justice project and to Gordon Darroch who has written this guide to the Scottish courts HERE.
Thanks to Philippa Thomas, Rupert Evelyn, and David Banks for their help in compiling this guide. David is co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and offers courses training journalists and others (see HERE).