Several newspapers have dropped some of their daily magistrates courts reports because of new fees imposed by the court service.
The Bradford Telegraph & Argus and four of its fellow Newsquest titles in West Yorkshire, including the Keighley News and the Ilkley Gazette, have stopped publishing their Courts in Brief columns because of charges brought in by HM Courts Service in March.
The T&A estimates that the fees could cost the papers £35,000 for daily coverage of the 12 courts on the papers’ patches each year.
Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley near Bradford, called on Justice Secretary Jack Straw to intervene to resolve the issue. He told Parliament: ‘I quite understand why the Government is embarrassed about lenient sentences handed out to criminals in our courts, but surely it is a rather weasel tactic to implement excessive charges to stop newspapers reporting them.”
Under the new rules, courts can charge news organisations, regardless of size, £5 for the first 10 pages and 50p a page after that for the outcomes of the previous day’s trials and hearings.
T&A editor Perry Austin-Clarke said: ‘We have covered the courts on a daily basis for as long as I can remember and I was outraged when HM Courts Service said it would be introducing punitive charges for the information. They are wholly disproportionate and we were forced, regretfully, to stop publishing them.”
Press Gazette has also learned that the Hertfordshire Advertiser has not been sent lists of upcoming magistrates’ court cases for the past seven months.
The Archant paper had been getting lists for free, but after a court office reorganisation in October they stopped.
Advertiser reporter David Wrottesley said: ‘We only have three reporters and so cannot send one to sit in the court in the hope that a relevant and interesting case turns up.”
St Albans’ Conservative MP Anne Main raised the issue in Parliament last Tuesday and personally with Jack Straw. According to the Advertiser, he told her the situation was ‘bonkers’and that covering local courts was ‘the bread and butter of local journalism”.
HM Courts Service and the Ministry of Justice said in a joint statement: ‘The Government believes that it is important for the press to have access to what is happening in the criminal courts.
‘We are reviewing the national picture with regard to providing information to the press and will be in a position to say more when our enquiries are complete.”