Justice operating unseen and unheard by public says Bar Council Chairman

Bar Council Chairman Andrew Langdon QC, writing in Counsel magazine,  laments the almost complete absence of regular court reporting in the UK that means that there is no “professional narrative” of the way in which justice is done or seen to be done.

While hyperlocal publications such as Love Wapping should be helping to rectify this absence the reality is that community journalism has a long way to go before it can provide court reporting as a dependable service.

Publishing basic information such as the results of cases is far more complex than it should be.

Andrew Langdon QC

“The courts are no longer being properly reported”

In his article Mr Langdon referenced a survey carried out by The Justice Gap which found that 45% of newspaper editors surveyed agreed with the statement that ‘It is abundantly clear that the courts are no longer being properly reported.’

“… The large majority of cases, although conducted in public hearings up and down the land, and although producing outcomes that often dramatically affect the lives of the citizens concerned, operate essentially unseen and unheard by the public,” said Langdon.

He links this vacuum left by the absence of court reporting by local media to the increase in “visceral attacks via social media and mainstream press on judges and the way we deliver justice” although balances this critique with praise for the “small army of admirable bloggers and Tweeters who spend their time correcting misapprehension of what has happened in court as best they can.”

LW cannot pretend to be part of that small army as yet – although we are quite good at ensuring that some face justice in the first place and pursuing issues where justice still has yet to be done. 

Miscarriages of justice will go unchallenged

Irrespective of who does or does not carry out court reporting the Justice Gap survey highlights an issue of fundamental importance when there is a belief that a miscarriage of justice has taken place.

It seems that court transcripts are routinely destroyed a few years after a trial’s conclusion.  If there has been no court report, there will be no record of many cases and they will be wiped from history as surely as if they never happened.

Potential miscarriages of justice will go unchallenged for the simple reason that there is no record of the judicial process.

Some measures are being taken to ensure that the legal context of news stories is explained in plain English, according to Langdon.

The Transparency Project’s Family Court Reporting Watch is funded by the Legal Education Foundation and is specifically aimed at correcting misreporting.

As Langdon says, initiatives of this sort may help to reduce the dangerous void personified by the vacant press seats in our courts.

LW Comment

Mr Langdon’s warnings have to be heeded. In 2010 Sir Eric Pickles, then Communities Secretary, heralded the unleashing of a small army of “armchair auditors” that would hold local authorities to account through the analysis of open data.

While armchair auditors have had some success even the most enthusiastic community journalist recognises that court reporting needs significantly more resources and skills than a comfy chair.

The court reporting deficit is another example of the death throes of a “zombie media” which only sees value in cheap copy generated from a press release and turns it back on the civic duty incumbent on a free press in a democratic society, the consistent reporting of the workings of the justice system.

The burgeoning community of UK hyperlocal journalists has a key role to play in fulfilling this duty which the death of established local papers leaves abandoned, but it is by no means clear how small hyperlocal’s can adequately fill the gap.

To competently report on a court case takes a lot more than just turning up with a sharpened pencil and lots of enthusiasm. Knowledge of the law, how the courts and criminal system works and good training are essential requisites.

Even if a hyperlocal publication has that level of professional skills few have the human resources to dedicate one person to spending many days in court.

The double tragedy is that court reporting is not only a fundamental requirement for an open and fair democratic system it is also the source of many superb stories that just need to be told.

We hate to think of the number of dodgy characters in Tower Hamlets whose crimes have gone unmentioned because we could not afford the time to pop along to the Magistrates Court.

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