Both the government and the courts system must do more to enhance open justice as well as tackling the practical difficulties and variations in the accessibility and quality of information that is made available during court proceedings, the Society of Editors has said.
Responding to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on Open Justice: The Way Forward, the Society said that despite significant progress achieved in recent years through Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) reform programme as well as the publication of guidance outlining the rights of journalists to attend court, further openness and transparency was required to increase public confidence and understanding of how decisions are made.
Reiterating its support for a number of recommendations contained last year in the Justice Committee’s report into Court Reporting in the Digital Age, the Society said that the justice system as well as judges and courts staff continue to have an essential role to play in ensuring that the principle of open justice is translated into reality.
It said: “Among the recommendations supported by the Society are the formation of a single digital portal for the media and public to access information related to court proceedings as well as a centralised database for court restrictions and the piloting of regional officers to support media access and complaints. In addition, following the monumental broadcasting of sentencing remarks from the Crown Court last year, we support an extension of the recording of sentencing remarks to the magistrates’ courts. Such an extension would greatly enhance public understanding of how such decisions are made.”
The Society also called for an expansion of the Local Democracy Reporting Scheme to cover court reporting which, it said, had previously been supported by the former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale at a seminar organised by the Society to discuss court reporting in 2018. A broadening of the scheme to cover court reporting has also been endorsed by a review of the Local News Partnership by the BBC in 2020 which found that there was “good justification” for expanding the scheme to cover courts.
The Society said: “An expansion of the scheme could be funded either by government or by a contribution to the LDRS scheme by technology giants such as Facebook and Google and would ensure that newsrooms can continue to dedicate important resources to ensuring that justice continues to be seen to be done by the public.”
The Society also raised concerns around the use of the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) introduced in 2015 to help streamline prosecutions of crimes such as fare evasion and speeding. The SJP allows a single magistrate to deal with cases behind-closed-doors based on written evidence alone and the fairness and transparency of this procedure has come under immense scrutiny.
Pointing to recent reporting by the Evening Standard and courts reporter Tristan Kirk, the Society said concerns have been raised “around the fairness of the SJP in relation to cases involving the elderly and vulnerable and the head of the Magistrates Association Tom Franklin has praised Kirk for helping to facilitate an “important debate” around how the justice system can be fair and transparent”.
It added: “The Society is supportive of the Ministry of Justice undertaking a review of the Single Justice Procedure (SJP) including further data on cases published so that they can be open to scrutiny and any inconsistencies can be identified. For public confidence in SJP use, the public must be assured that cases dealt with in this way are treated as fairly as they would be in open court.”
The Society’s response to the consultation can be read in full here.