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Local newspapers should use citizen journalists to report from magistrates' courts

The disappointing, but unsurprising, results from our research study held at Bristol Magistrates’ Court showed that our lowest level of criminal court operates in what is essentially a state of invisibility.

Only one journalist attended court to report on one case out of the 240 heard that week, according to our observers.

This absence of coverage, absence of journalist presence, and regurgitation of press releases all mean that the cherished principle of “open justice” is diminished by the lack of independent scrutiny.

February’s Cairncross Review into the news industry highlighted court reporting as one of its areas of “public interest news” which should be sustained.

It said direct financial support for local news through a mooted Institute of Public Interest News should be available. However, even if a magic money tree could be found, simply repeating the same old process of court reporting would not be the answer.

It is not just the fact that 99 per cent of cases in magistrates’ courts go unreported that is of concern, but the lack of wider scrutiny of this layer of justice administration.

We believe the media should encourage justice reporting that does not focus on one or two unusual or outrageous cases, but looks at the trends and processes in courts.

In our survey we discovered the swift pace at which justice is dispensed, the lack of representation for some defendants, the structural issues with missing interpreters, delays in an overworked probation service and advocates appearing in two courts at the same time.

The Twitter account Idle Courts is one example of spotting such trends.

As part of our study we logged the social issues affecting defendants, with drugs, mental health and alcohol featuring prominently in many cases.

Unless there are reporters present, these issues go unheeded and unremarked and certainly do not feature in a list of convictions supplied by the Crown Prosecution Service.

It also requires court reporters given a licence to look at such structural issues and the experience needed to spot these trends.

These are not abstract concerns but ones which shine a light on fundamental problems in the local area. For instance, by looking at key words from all the summaries of cases we logged we noted a significant number of thefts of meat from supermarkets.

Talking to those involved it turned out that austerity had led to a rise in people stealing food. In turn supermarkets now regularly security tag meat as they do high value items like alcohol.

Currently the court service has comparatively little data on the cases that are dealt with at magistrates’ courts. There are no transcripts and only the most basic procedural information is recorded.

A justice reporter would gather key data on all the court cases so that trends could be spotted and comparisons made. They would concentrate not on the individual cases, but ask questions about how the system is operating.

Not only would the public get a better idea of how courts operate (which the focus on a few cases does not do) but it would aid the court service in identifying areas to improve.

But so to do would require independent reporter attendance in the magistrates’ court on a full-time basis and a much better provision of information from the court service.

The Ministry of Justice and magistrates themselves appear to be keen for there to be an increase in reporting and for a better understanding of the justice system.

However, the closure of physical courts and the proposals for digital online courts increase the barriers for traditional news outlets to send reporters down to court.

The courts also must be more “welcoming”, providing accessible court lists.

While the courts have reiterated that journalists may have access to documents referred to in a case in court, in practice this still involves delay and hoop-jumping to get access, by which time a normal news cycle may have passed, albeit not for a justice reporting story.

Courts also need to accept the use of tablets/laptops in the public gallery, ensure video links are acoustically better, and ensure court officials are prepared to actively facilitate open justice in practice, not just in principle.

We propose that in order for there to be a proper level of reporting of individual cases and of justice reporting, local news media should be open to using citizen journalists sitting in magistrates’ courts to gather comprehensive data.

It’s time for a 21st century approach to court reporting.

This piece has been written by the following academics: Phil Chamberlain (Bath), Marcus Keppel-Palmer (UWE), Sally Reardon (UWE), Tom Smith (UWE), Bernhard Gross (UWE)

Picture: Google Maps

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