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News bulletin: open justice and reporting in the family courts

Posted on: January 12, 2022 by Claire Meadows

-News Bulletin-
 
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.
 

 
Family Courts committed to greater transparency, says President

The Family Courts are still committed to introducing greater transparency and media reporting, the President of the Family Division has confirmed.

Also giving evidence on Tuesday (11 January 2022) to the Justice Committee as part of the inquiry into open justice, Sir Andrew McFarlane reaffirmed the need for much greater openness following the publication last year of his report Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts.

McFarlane said that there remained a legitimate interest in the public having a much better understanding of what the family courts do and that this understanding was enhanced elsewhere in the justice system through media reporting.

He said: “All other aspects of the justice system are open – apart from the highly sensitive security matters – to a very large extent. It is an exception to the open justice principle that family cases are dealt with separately.”

McFarlane confirmed that a Transparency Implementation Group was currently working on how the changes included in the report could be implemented and discussions with journalists and editors at a national and local level would be undertaken to better meet the challenges of achieving greater transparency without jeopardising anonymity. The changes would also look to be piloted in two or three areas ahead of any national roll-out, he confirmed.

He said: “The main driver towards making this change is to do with public confidence in this system and that is largely delivered by the public access through the media as to what is going on.

“My experience – and most family judges will have experience of sitting in cases that have then been reported both in the family jurisdiction and the Court of Protection, which sits in public, is that journalists are very responsible and understand these issues…I have some confidence that [the changes] will be responsibly and professionally undertaken by journalists.”

McFarlane also expressed his confidence that the changes he wants to implement can be achieved through changes to the Family Procedure Rules 2010 separate from any consideration Parliament may want to give to amending Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 which currently makes the reporting of private hearings a contempt of court.

Responding to a question on whether wider reporting of the most difficult, controversial cases could result in a lower level of public confidence in the system, McFarlane said that he did not think increased reporting would exacerbate the problem.

He said: “If the case is particularly difficult, unusual or sensational, I would hope that the reporting of it would nevertheless show that the family court dealt with it professionally, properly and proportionately and the fact that it is an awful case doesn’t mean that the view that people would have of the way the court dealt with it would be itself negative.”
 

 
Jodie Ginsberg to head the Committee to Protect Journalists 

Jodie Ginsberg, former Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, has this week been announced as the new President of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

Ginsberg, the current Chief Executive Officer of Internews Europe, will succeed Joel Simon, who stepped down from his role at the CPJ at the end of 2021 after leading the organisation for 15 years.

Announcing Ginsberg’s appointment, CPJ board chair Kathleen Carroll said that her “first-hand knowledge” of the threats journalists faced would be an asset to the organisation. 

She said: “Journalism is under attack like never before from repressive governments, despots and criminals, and CPJ’s work is more important than ever.

“Jodie Ginsberg is an accomplished advocate and talented journalist with first-hand knowledge of some of the perils journalists face. Jodie will bring bold leadership and a clear vision to the pursuit of our mission, and we are thrilled to welcome her to CPJ.”

Expected to take up the post in New York in April 2022, Ginsberg said that she was honoured to be leading the organisation at such a critical juncture.

She said: “The past two years have shown just how vital a role the press plays in our global world.

“Journalists help hold power to account, expose corruption and injustice and shine a spotlight on the most important issues of our day – from health to climate to social change. For that, far too many face a growing threat of violence and harassment. I am determined to help reverse this trend and am honoured to be leading CPJ at such a critical juncture.”
 

Call for views: Reform of the Human Rights Act 1998

The Society of Editors has this week replied to a letter to Justice Secretary Dominic Raab MP in relation to the consultation on the Reform of the Human Rights Act 1998

The Justice Secretary wrote to the Society last month upon launch of the consultation and welcomed the views of its members on the consultation’s proposals.

Responding to the letter, Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society welcomed the government’s recognition that freedom of expression and the media are essential qualities of any democracy and confirmed that the Society would be responding to the consultation ahead of the 8 March 2022 deadline.

She said: “The Society will be considering the consultation document in full and liaising with our members in order to frame our response. We will look closely at the proposals outlined to enhance press freedom of expression and the proposals for limiting “interference” with the press in respect of privacy claims.”

Launching the consultation in December 2021, Raab said that the proposals, which included a new Bill of Rights, would seek to strengthen freedom of speech and change the balance in freedom of expression and privacy cases.

He said: “Our plans for a Bill of Rights will strengthen typically British rights like freedom of speech and trial by jury, while preventing abuses of the system and adding a healthy dose of common sense.”

The consultation acknowledges that “the case law of the Strasbourg Court has shown a willingness to give priority to personal privacy” over freedom of expression and the government is therefore consulting on how to balance the right to freedom of expression with competing rights (such as the right to privacy) or wider public interest considerations.

Proposals include “a stronger and more effective provision” for “making it clear that the right to freedom of expression is of the utmost importance” and that courts should only grant relief impinging on it where there are exceptional reasons. Any new Bill of Rights would also “make specific provision for journalists’ sources to make sure they are properly protected” the proposals state.

Any Society members who wish to share their views on the proposals can do so by emailing claire.meadows@societyofeditors.org by Friday 4 February 2022.