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Old Bailey allows journalists to cover criminal cases from home in legal first

Posted on: March 26, 2020 by Claire Meadows

In what is believed to be a legal first today, the Old Bailey permitted journalists to cover criminal cases from home it has been reported. 

On Thursday, journalists rang into London’s historic Central Criminal Court for preliminary hearings before Judge Angela Rafferty QC.

It followed an application to the court by journalists from the PA news agency, the BBC and the London Evening Standard in the interests of open justice.

Tristan Kirk, Courts Reporter from the Evening Standard, has used Twitter to provide updates on how adjustments to the courts and tribunals service are working in practice.

Kirk has been able to report on the livestream of a Supreme Court ruling and dialled-in to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s bail hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court this week. 

The adjustments to court access in England and Wales follow the decision by the Lord Chief Justice to pause all new jury trials in the Crown Court at the start of the week while precautions are assessed due to the spread of coronavirus.

The Society of Editors called on HMCTS earlier this week to ensure that adjustments made to court hearings must ensure that open justice is enabled. Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society has said that while the safety of all involved in the court process is paramount, justice must continue to be seen to be done and journalists must continue to have safe access to proceedings.

At the time of writing (26 March), jury trials that were underway in England and Wales are continuing with social distancing measures taking place. Lord Burnett of Maldon has prohibited all new jury trials from currently taking place. Both the Crown Court and the Magistrates Court are only covering urgent work with magistrates hearing cases solely in relation to custody hearings, warrants and sensitive and youth cases. Magistrates will also handle coronavirus-related prosecutions.

For the first time today the Old Bailey, Kirk reported that the Old Bailey had allowed court reporters to cover criminal cases from home. 

He said: “Journalists can listen in to court proceedings from home, never previously permitted at the famous courthouse. It’s a groundbreaking step. Other courts will hopefully follow.”

The decision followed an application to the court by journalists from the PA news agency, the BBC and the London Evening Standard in the interests of open justice.

Kirk has also provided updates on how dialling into proceedings is working in practice. A major benefit for journalists was the ability to report from multiple courts at once, he said. 

He added: With dial-in hearings, it’s possible to be at two courts at once, which is a major boost. You lose quite a bit of the in-person value along the way, so it’s not a substitute. In the future, dialling in for procedural hearings should be a solid option for journalists.

The benefits of a livestream were that the media could see the proceedings taking place in court which was a big part of court reporting, Kirk said. One of the main problems facing courts was that they were not set up to facilitate multi- layered digital hearings, he said.

At present, the media had not been permitted to dial into criminal hearings he said.

He added: “The obvious elephants in the room are criminal hearings – nothing in place to allow remote reporting during coronavirus. Dozens of telephone hearings happening tomorrow, pleas and even sentences happening, but we’re not allowed to dial-in. Let’s hope that changes soon.”

Amid the adjustments, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has announced that it will publish a daily summary of the operational position of courts and tribunals across England and Wales during the crisis. Updated daily by 9am, the summary will provide updates on proceedings in the Magistrates and Crown Courts and can be found here.

The Society reported yesterday that a judge in Norwich has joined forces with the local press to ensure that the coronavirus does not halt coverage of court cases in his jurisdiction. The Eastern Daily Press (EDP) and Norwich Evening News are working with Judge Anthony Bate to set up live streaming of Norwich Crown Court proceedings via Skype.

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