Brush up on press law, magistrates are told

Greenwood: courts need to learn

Magistrates should have specialist training before being allowed to make orders restricting press freedom, according to Walter Greenwood, co-editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.

Speaking at the NCTJ’s annual legal update for editors in London, Greenwood said magistrates’ rulings were often contrary to law and legal precedent.

He said in many courts they were easily swayed by defence lawyers into making reporting restrictions without adequate knowledge of the law.

Greenwood argued: "When a matter as important as freedom of speech was at stake judicial roles should be fulfilled to judicial standards." He said the Society of Editors and the Judicial Studies Board had drawn up guidelines on reporting restrictions both in crown courts and magistrates courts but he added: "The trouble is that most magistrates and some judges seem not to have heard of them." In the crown courts, judges relied on counsel fulfilling their duty to the court by drawing attention to the appropriate law on reporting restrictions. But Greenwood claimed counsel often did not tell the judge the full story and did not acquaint him with the relevant case law.

Greenwood also said he feared bills being promoted in the new session of Parliament could involve more reporting restrictions  – relating to serious juvenile crime being tried in a new-style youth court as proposed in the Auld report on criminal procedure, and domestic violence cases.

"Some courts are almost certain to misinterpret the statute as they do almost daily with existing restrictions. They will have to be challenged. It will be a field day for lawyers, a headache for court reporters and yet another restriction, adding to the jungle of confusing statutes." It had been recommended that the new-style youth court – replacing the crown court for serious offences –  would sit in private, with power to operate in public when thought fit. It was not clear whether there would be automatic anonymity for these young criminals.

A White Paper on criminal justice had proposed anonymity for victims of domestic violence.

"If this were enacted it would be yet another restriction on freedom to report, with all the attendant anomalies and permutations in news stories which Parliamentary draftsmen rarely thought of," Greenwood warned.


By Jon Slattery

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