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June 25, 2024

Tristan Kirk’s fight for open justice: ‘I was only reporter covering these cases’

The latest Paul Foot Award winner warns more secret justice could be on the cards.

By Bron Maher

The Evening Standard‘s Tristan Kirk has been fighting a lone campaign to shine a light on nearly a decade of secret criminal trials.

Kirk, who is the Evening Standard’s courts correspondent, won the Private Eye-run Paul Foot Award this month for his work exposing how the “single justice procedure” for Covid-related offences had created a “conveyor belt” justice system and led to miscarriages of justice.

Under the single justice procedure, introduced in 2015 for those accused of minor crimes, there was is no longer an automatic hearing. Instead, a letter sent to the accused specifies the dates between which their case will be dealt with by a magistrate and features a form they can use to respond to the charge.

The form has three options: the accused may say they are guilty and do not want a hearing, that they are guilty and they do want a hearing or that they are innocent, which automatically results in a hearing.

If there is no hearing, there is nothing for reporters to sit in on, meaning decisions are made with little, if any, scrutiny.

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“You get a lot of people who go into the single decision [process] by default because they never reply to the letter,” Kirk said.

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When Kirk got involved in a media working group run by His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service around 2017, he said, “it became gradually apparent that they were holding court hearings without telling anyone at all.

“And to me that’s secret justice. It might be an administrative mistake, but you’ve done it all the same.”

‘Absolutely outraged’ at secret trials for Covid rule-breakers

In the next few years Kirk said he saw some success — “mainly through being a bit of a pain” — at opening the procedures up and jostling magistrates’ courts to send regular lists of their single justice procedure case outcomes.

What enabled the award-winning “conveyor belt justice” story was a rule change, brought about around 2018, that meant reporters could apply for “the paperwork that goes behind” single justice procedures at a court, Kirk said, rather than just lists of the cases.

When the government brought in its Covid lockdown rules, it was decided rule-breakers would be dealt with through the single justice procedure.

Kirk said: “I was absolutely outraged — genuinely, I couldn’t believe it… Not only had they brought in these new laws that were highly contentious, obviously, and we all know what’s come out since then — but they decided [to enforce them through] these secretive court hearings that most of the press don’t know about.

“This is reflected in the coverage that was then given to Covid breaches for a time,” Kirk said. “I hope I’m not over-inflating this by saying I think I was the only reporter in the country who was regularly picking up on these cases.

“There were regional reporters who got in touch with me during that time saying ‘where are you finding all these cases?’ because they didn’t know the single justice procedure had sort of swept them all up.

“There was a period of time in Westminster Magistrates Court where they simply forgot to send out the lists — and so they were genuinely secret hearings.”

Following the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard in 2021, for example, some attendees judged to have breached lockdown restrictions were dealt with under the single justice procedure.

Kirk said one of the cases had been “the most substantial single justice procedure case I think I’d ever seen… I spent the best part of an hour reading those papers, and I think they were over and done with it in 15, 20 minutes…

“I ended up informing at least one of the defendants that they had been convicted,” he added, after the courts failed to successfully communicate the conviction.

Another single justice procedure case Kirk highlighted involved someone who hadn’t paid their licence fee.

“It turned out they had such severe learning difficulties that the council was looking after their money.

“The council pleaded guilty on their behalf, and that person got a conviction for not paying for a TV licence in circumstances where they weren’t even managing their own finances.”

Kirk said the single justice procedure is still being used in 750,000 to 800,000 cases a year, and Press Gazette asked whether he felt hopeful that his reporting might bring some change to the system.

“If you’d asked me a few weeks ago I’d be not tremendously hopeful,” he said.

“I think winning this award has perhaps put the matter onto a higher platform than it would have [had] previously, and I’m immensely grateful for that.

“And also grateful to the Evening Standard for continuing to publish my stories — I really am, because it’s been a slog, and at some points it’s felt like they won’t change anything.”

More secret justice rules could be on the way

Kirk warned in 2018 that only two London courts were receiving “proper coverage” in the press, with six crown courts getting “no coverage whatsoever”.

Kirk said: “I think there’s a narrative that has been built within political circles in recent years that there aren’t any court reporters therefore there’s less attention being paid to what goes on in the courts.

“And I think in some circumstances that’s been used by politicians to justify cutting back on certain things.”

He gave the example of a mooted online plea allocation system that would replace many first appearances at magistrates courts. The new system has been passed into law but has not been enacted.

Kirk said: “If the single justice procedure is the thin end of the wedge, this is the next step… The matters that are dealt with at a hearing can be done in private between lawyers and the court exchanging emails, uploading things to the system. And at the moment, there’s nothing concrete on the table, to say: this is how the transparency is going to work.

“Now if you ask me, those magistrates’ court hearings are all important — everything should happen in public. Moving them into private, even if you arrange for a wonderful system of access for journalists, is not good enough. It’s not a public court anymore.”

He added: “The next government, Labour or otherwise, has to decide: are you happy with what’s going on here?

“This reform, online plea allocation, is on the statute book — it was passed, lamentably, but it hasn’t been brought into effect yet. And so we’ve got a chance to push back, to row back, and say, actually, no, we’d like to encourage more openness, more transparency, we’re not going to do something that’s contrary to that.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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