Justice bill to stop criminals cashing in on their story

Justice secretary Jack Straw is to ask Parliament for new powers to stop criminals making money by selling their stories to newspapers and broadcasters.

The proposals are part of a new Coroners and Justice Bill, one of 14 proposed new pieces of legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech today and due to be debated in Parliament over the coming year.

The main elements of the bill include ‘a scheme to prevent criminals profiting from exploiting the stories of their crimes”.

It is not yet clear whether this applies specifically to so-called ‘cheque-book journalism’in newspapers – or a broader range of money-making activities such as writing memoirs.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the full proposals would be set out in the bill and announced at a later date.

‘If [criminals] are making money from [their stories], however they manage to do it, they’re still profiting from it,’she said.

Payments to criminals are already covered under the Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Practice.

Clause sixteen of the code says: ‘Payment or offers of payment for stories, pictures or information, which seek to exploit a particular crime or to glorify or glamorise crime in general, must not be made directly or via agents to convicted or confessed criminals or to their associates – who may include family, friends and colleagues.”

But the code includes a public interest defence, which states: ‘Editors invoking the public interest to justify payment or offers would need to demonstrate that there was good reason to believe the public interest would be served.

‘If, despite payment, no public interest emerged, then the material should not be published.”

Court reporting

The Coroners and Justice Bill also aims to improve the coroners’ service and the process of death certification, and make more information on local court sentencing available to the public via the internet.

News of a proposed online database of magistrates’ and criminal court results first emerged in September, after the Ministry of Justice abandoned plans to charge for access to the court lists that are the staple of crime reporting.

‘My government will bring forward a bill to deliver a more effective, transparent and responsive justice system for victims, witnesses and the wider public,’the Queen said in her speech at the state opening of Parliament this morning.

‘The bill would also improve the coroners service, and the process of death certification, and provide increased support for bereaved families, including the families of servicemen and women.”

The Ministry of Justice is also proposing to give ‘the best possible protection right from the early stages’- such as anonymity – to ‘vulnerable and intimidated witnesses’in sensitive trials such as gun murder trials where gangs are involved.

The bill also aims to provide stronger inspection powers for the Information Commissioner in a bid to ‘improve public confidence in the way that data is held and used”.

The Queen’s speech made no references to controversial proposals to rethink access to inquests where reporting the proceedings could compromise national security.

The Coroners and Justice Bill will create the new role of The Office of the Chief Coroner, who will put national standards in place and ensure coroners deliver a charter of services to benefit bereaved families.

There will be a new death certification system to provide reassurance that there are independent checking of the courses of death.

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