New press guidance to promote open justice in courts

New press guidance to promote open justice in courts

Sketch of journalists by Isobel Williams

Full court lists should be available to the media on request and journalists do not to apply for permission to tweet or text from court, according to new guidance aiming to promote open justice in the courts. Tweeting in court was sanctioned in 2011 but the new HM Court and Tribunal Service guidance published yesterday clarifies the regime and makes clear that the press do not need prior permission to use ‘text-based devices to communicate from court’ including using Twitter and social media, texting and emailing and using internet-enabled laptops.

The new handbook, which was developed by a working group including the media, stressed that the media were ‘entitled by law to hear and be present’ at all open court proceedings including those with reporting restrictions in place. Journalists should not be ‘forced to cover the trial from the public gallery – individual reporters may be at risk of intimidation from friends or relatives to parties in the case’, it added. You can read the guidance here.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors welcomed what it described as ‘an important initiative’. ‘If the public is to have faith in the justice system it must see it in action and that means ensuring journalists have access to courts and the necessary information to do their jobs. At the same time court staff need to have simple guidelines as to what is permissible,’ he said. ‘There is more to do but the work carried out so far is extremely important.’

The Society of Editors last month highlighted one of the problems journalists have had accessing what it described as ‘vital court information’ when court staff at Gateshead magistrates court emailed journalists to inform them they would only have access to a list of names of defendants and not details of their address, ages and the charges they faced citing the new GDPR general data protection regime. Ian Murray noted that it seemed to be ‘a simple misunderstanding’ by court staff but, he went to say, it showed ‘just how easy it is to deny the public the right to open justice’.  The new guidance makes clear that courts will not breach data protection legislation by providing the media with such information.

In a lecture in 2015, the then Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, addressed the use of social media in our courts.

‘How is the principle of open justice compatible with preventing an ongoing, live and text-based dialogue to the outside world from a courtroom? If a reporter or member of the public is permitted to write notes to himself or herself in court, and then ‘file them’ from a telephone outside the court, what is the qualitative difference if they are permitted to do so when sitting in court, say, by sending a email? If it is possible to file a story via email from a laptop in court, then why is Twitter any different? On the other hand, tape recordings are prohibited by statute. Why is Twitter in the form of text-based transmission of material from court any different?’