The Society of Editors (SoE) has welcomed news that the media has been invited to have greater input into plans to reopen jury trials in England and Wales.
The SoE has urged the government to ensure that that open justice is maintained as it prepares to return to jury trials suspended when the current lockdown came into place during the Covid-19 crisis.
Now the media have been invited by Mr Justice Edis, who is chairing the judicial working party into how jury trials can be re-started, to submit written representations.
The invitation to the media follows concerns that journalists were not considered as court practitioners and are not being permitted to take part in the working party’s discussions.
The Society of Editors says it welcomes assurances that the media’s voice and concerns are to be considered by the working party. However, the SoE says it is still preferable that the media is considered as much a part of the court system as lawyers and the police who are actively participating in the discussions.
“We value and are grateful that the concerns of the media are being taken into account during these discussions, but it would be far preferable if the press and broadcasters were involved directly at this stage,” commented SoE executive director Ian Murray.
“While we appreciate that those considering this matter have acknowledged that open justice is essential and the media must be permitted to cover jury trials, there are practical questions here. It would be better these issues were tackled at this stage than at the end of the process.”
Murray acknowledged that there will be issues the media must take into consideration, such as the challenge to ensure that only recognised journalists are permitted to use any remote access provided under the initiative to reopen jury trials.
“These are practical issues and the mechanisms need to be in place to ensure trust does not break down, but I believe these matters can be resolved,” added Murray.
Several concerns over any re-starting of jury hearings have been raised by the media, including the use of videolinks for reporters, how social distancing will work and will it lead to smaller courts shutting their doors to journalists, and whether PPE will be needed for journalists to attend hearings.
Tristan Kirk, court correspondent for the Evening Standard, said he was concerned on a number of levels and would prefer more use of videolinks being provided for journalists.
“There are quite a few questions I would have, but it’s difficult to be definitive without knowing what the proposals are, when it might happen, how it would happen, and what the government health advice would be.
“If they are looking to restart trials in May, we can assume social distancing would still be in place as well as travel restrictions.
“Will the court look at videolinks for reporters? Videolinks are working well in pre-trial hearings now so what are the objections to continuing in trials?
“How will social distancing be done in court? What if there isn’t enough space for the media? I think we should strongly object to limiting numbers of reporters in court.
“Can every court accommodate an overspill court? That answer is probably no – should they conduct a trial even if an overspill isn’t possible?
“Does the journalist key worker status still apply if covering a trial that has nothing to do with coronavirus?
“How will reporters be able to go in and out of the courtroom safely? There are social distancing implications for anyone that moves in court.
“Masks – do we need them? Who provides them? Is PPE for court workers being considered?
“My main contention at the moment is that the media should be represented on the judicial working party that has been set up to look at jury trials and when to restart – every other court user is represented, lawyers, judges, probation, police, witnesses, but not the media.
“I’d argue that we perform an important job in the court system, we have unique needs and considerations, and it would be a mistake to treat members of the press and members of the public in the same way when the restart comes.”
A spokesperson for HMCTS said: “The judicial working group has been established to consider ways to re-start some jury trials once it is safe to do so. The group will be looking at all issues, including ensuring that jury trials continue to be open and accessible to the media. Its chair, Mr Justice Edis, has invited media representatives to submit proposals that they wish to be considered.”
Media wishing to submit questions to the judicial working party should contact Sagar Desai, who is dealing with the secretariat function: sagar.desai@Justice.gov.uk