The Society of Editors has raised concerns over proposals to restrict media access to courtrooms while complainants in sexual offence prosecutions give evidence.
The proposal, set out within the Law Commission’s consultation on Evidence in Sexual Offence Prosecutions, could see courts move to a system whereby complainants are granted an automatic entitlement to exclude the public and all but one member of the media from court while their evidence is being given.
Responding to the consultation, the Society said that as well as being “unworkable in practice”, such a directive ran contrary to the principle of open justice and would have a “devastating effect on the future coverage of sexual offence cases”.
Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society said: “At a time when there has been a significant move in recent years by the justice system to enhance open justice in courts and allow wider reporting in areas which historically have been private in nature, it seems contrary to the greater openness and transparency that has been achieved elsewhere to now attempt to implement unnecessary restrictions on the media’s ability to accurately report on cases involving sexual offences”.
The proposal, which has also been opposed by the Crime Reporters Association, comes as part of a package of proposed reforms by the Law Commission which seeks to look at ways to improve understanding of consent and sexual harm by countering the effects of rape myths, improving the treatment of complainants during sexual offence prosecutions and ensuring that defendants receive a fair trial.
While Alford highlighted the bravery of sexual offence complainants giving evidence in court and said that the Society fully supported efforts to mitigate the accompanying stress and trauma that often accompanies the judicial process, there was no evidence to suggest that restricting media attendance would enhance complainant’s court experiences and provisions did already exist to assist victims in such cases, she said.
Alford added: “As well as being granted anonymity for life, complainants in sexual offence cases can give evidence via video-link or through a pre-recorded interview and many also choose to give evidence from behind a screen in court whereby, in most court rooms, this has the practical effect of them being entirely hidden from view.
“To therefore add additional and unnecessary restrictions and limitations on the media’s ability to be present in court when such evidence is being given seems entirely disproportionate and unlikely to have any notable effect on victims’ court experiences.”
The difficulty of deciding which member of the media should be present in court also meant that such a system was likely to be unworkable in practice, she added.
“To limit access to only one member of the press during sessions in which complainants give evidence is entirely unworkable” Alford said. “There is no process that currently exists whereby it could be easily decided which journalist should attend and there is no system in which copy could be checked for accuracy and quickly distributed to the international, national and regional media with interest in a particular case. In addition, the implementation of such a provision would likely open any designated reporter distributing copy to significant legal issues were it later found that they had made a mistake and copy had been widely distributed and published elsewhere” she added.
Calling on the Commission to re-consider the proposal, the Society said that “journalists play an essential role in disseminating criminal proceedings to the wider public” and coverage of cases also helped assist public understanding and public confidence in how judicial decisions are made.
The response concluded: “At a time when public confidence in the police and judicial system is already low, placing additional restrictions on the media’s ability to report on how decisions are made is likely to further reduce, rather than enhance, both the public’s confidence and the reporting of sexual offence cases more generally. In order for justice to be done, it must also be seen to be done, and we hope that the Commission will re-consider this proposal.”