The Society of Editors has joined journalists and publishers in raising open justice concerns amid plans to allow first magistrates’ court appearances in some circumstances to become online administrative hearings.
The proposals, contained in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, will see the open justice principle “heavily compromised” and could result in a “legal grey area” for reporting information that is handed to the media, journalists have said.
The proposals to allow some first magistrates’ court appearances to become online administrative hearings would mean journalists will miss out on hearing the first details of allegations from prosecutors, seeing the defendant in the dock, knowing contemporaneously the details of a plea, knowing the details of any bail conditions and journalists would have no contemporaneous knowledge of the existence of Indictable Only (IO) cases which are administratively sent to the Crown Court. The proposals would also mean journalists would be heavily reliant on court results registers and phone calls and/or emails to magistrates’ court officials to make up the information shortfall.
The open justice concerns have been raised in a letter to HMCTS organised by Evening Standard Courts Correspondent Tristan Kirk and signed by the Society’s Executive Director Dawn Alford alongside more than 100 journalists and industry representatives. The letter makes clear that the media’s knowledge of a substantial number of court cases is going to be “adversely affected” and that the media’s ability to accurately and contemporaneously report on proceedings will be significantly impacted.
The letter says: ‘If criminal cases are dealt with administratively as proposed, it appears to the media that the consequences will be: a dramatic reduction in knowledge of the substance of criminal cases before the courts; a significant reduction in the volume and quality of media reports of court proceedings; a substantial legal ‘grey area’ for reporters, between the court’s administrative decisions and publication of post-court registers; a total loss of contemporaneous court reporting; a marked increase in requests for information from court officials, the HMCTS press office, and other bodies and a loss in public confidence that the open justice principle is being respected.’
In response to the letter, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson told Press Gazette: “Our changes will allow people to enter their pleas online for low-level offences – such as fishing with an unlicensed rod – saving people from traipsing to court unnecessarily.
“These measures will also provide 400 extra court sitting days each year to speed up justice for victims of more serious offences.
“The list of cases being heard in court will continue to be published online and additional information will remain available to journalists to maintain the principle of open justice.”