The reporting ban imposed by the Appeal Court at the end of the successful appeal by Nicholas van Hoogstraten against his conviction for manslaughter has again led to criticism that the courts are increasingly putting the cart before the horse.
The case lasted a day, with unrestricted reporting throughout. Finally, Lord Justice Rose gave judgment lasting roughly three-quarters of an hour giving reasons why the court considered the property millionaire’s conviction should be quashed and there should be a retrial.
Then, at the end of the hearing, the application to restrict reporting was made with the result that the court imposed a ban on any reporting of the reasons for its decision until after the retrial has taken place.
By that time though, the decision had been given and some reporters had already left court to file the result, possibly with some of the detail from the judgment, oblivious to the fact that the submissions over legal costs which followed immediately after the judgment were then followed by far more relevant media considerations.
Court reporters have argued for some time that judges and lawyers need to be brought up to speed on the workings of the modern media and the way it often handles running copy.
They claim that time and again cases are heard and reported throughout the hearing and it is not until the end that an application is made – sometimes successful and sometimes not – for a reporting ban to be imposed.
By then it can be far too late. The horse has already bolted and the running story has been published or broadcast or both.
In a case like van Hoogstraten’s, where the press benches were packed, journalists found it incomprehensible that the question of reporting restrictions was left until the last minute.
In contrast, in the same week, High Court family division president Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss dealt with the tragic, right-to-die-with-dignity case of Teresa Innes, who was left in a permanent vegetative state after being administered penicillin when she was allergic to it.
Lawyers and the judge considered the question of identification and publicity and made it clear from the outset that, though the case was being dealt with in open court, restrictions would be imposed.
By Roger Pearson