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.
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.”
Catch up on the evidence session here.