Challenging court reporting bans - the legal precedent

A journalist’s right to cover court cases is the rule, not the exception, in British law.

Last week, a reporting ban at Maidstone crown court was only lifted after a successful appeal by the Kent Messenger’s court reporter Keith Hunt.

But common law – that is, law set by courts’ decisions – has repeatedly endorsed the journalist’s right to report court cases.

In 1913, for example, in Scott v Scott, Lord Atkinson said: “The hearing of a case in public may be, and often is, no doubt, painful, humiliating, or deterrent both to parties and witnesses, and in many cases, especially those of a criminal nature, the details may be so indecent as to tend to injure public morals.

“But all this is tolerated and endured, because it is felt that in public trial is to found, on the whole, the best security for the pure, impartial and efficient administration of justice, the best means for winning for it public confidence and respect.”

In that case, Lord Atkinson quoted legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who, in 1834, wrote in Draught of a New Plan for the Organisation of the Judicial Establishment in France: “Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion, and the surest of all guards against improbity. It keeps the judge himself, while trying, under trial.”

Bentham and Atkinson’s lead was followed in 1979 by Lord Diplock in AG v Leveller, who said: “As a general rule the English system of administering justice does require that it be done in public. If the way that courts behave cannot be hidden from the public ear and eye, this provides a safeguard against judicial arbitrariness or idiosyncrasy and maintains the public confidence in the administration of justice.”

And, in 1999, in R v Legal Aid Board, Lord Woolf said: “The public nature of proceedings deters inappropriate behaviour on the part of the court. It also maintains the public’s confidence in the administration of justice.”

Specifically, the court reporter’s role has been highlighted in a number of cases. In R v Felixstowe Justices in 1987, Watkins LJ said:

“The role of the journalist and his importance for the public interest in the administration of justice has been commented on upon many occasions. No one nowadays can surely doubt this his presence in court for the purpose of reporting proceedings conducted therein is indispensible.”

Watkins LJ cited Lord Denning, who in 1955 wrote in The Road To Justice: “A newspaper reporter is in every court. He sits through the dullest cases in the court of appeal and the most trivial cases before the magistrates. He says nothing but writes a lot…he is, I verily believe, the watchdog of justice.”

And the media’s role is also recognised by the European Court of Human Rights, which draws on Article Six of the European Convention of Human Rights, the right to a fair trial. In Pretto v Italy, in 1984, the European Court of Human Rights ruled: “By rendering the administration of justice visible, publicity contributes to the achievement of the aim of Article Six – namely a fair trial.”

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