The Society of Editors has welcomed the intervention of the Prime Minister’s office to ensure journalists continue have access to vital court information to carry out their jobs.
The assurances came after reporters attending two busy courts were informed by officials they would no longer have sight of the full details of court lists following changes to data protection laws.
A spokesperson for Number 10 yesterday stepped into the row to insist that court lists should be provided in full for the media. And HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), part of the Ministry of Justice, said the rulings were due to misunderstandings by a few court officials misreading the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which became law this year.
The row comes as the Society is set to debate the issue of threats to open justice and court reporting at its annual conference in Manchester next month.
“This appears to have been a simple misunderstanding by court officials and not a deliberate attempt to withhold information, but it shows just how easy it is to deny the public the right to open justice,” commented Society of Editors’ executive director Ian Murray.
“Ironically, the Society has been working with HMCTS and other bodies of late to help clarify to those working in our courts their obligation to ensure journalists have access to vital information and court facilities to carry out their work. In the end this is a matter of serving the public. When journalists can’t do their job then open justice and ultimately the public are harmed.”
The row started when officials at Gateshead magistrates court emailed journalists to inform them they would only have access to a list of names of defendants and not details of their address, ages and the charges they faced.
However, a spokesman from the Prime Minister’s Office said the withholding of information absolutely should not happen.
“Court lists will continue to be available to members of the press and the courts service has a clear protocol that allows journalists to obtain court listings.
“Guidance is given to all staff and it remains unaffected by GDPR rules. The courts and tribunals service has reminded staff of their responsibilities to prevent any repeat of these incidents.”
The Society of Editors launched its Crisis in Our Courts initiative in January of this year to highlight the growing concern over lack of coverage of courts in the UK, particularly at a local level.
The issue will be debated by a panel of experts at the Society’s up-coming conference in Manchester on November 5. More details are available at www.societyofeditors.org