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January 21, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:23am

Buzzfeed and BBC win Bar Council prizes for stories exposing legal aid and evidence sharing issues in UK courts

By Charlotte Tobitt

Buzzfeed UK and the BBC have won prizes for stories shining a spotlight on the problems caused by cuts to legal aid and exposing the scale of the issue around the disclosure of criminal evidence to defence counsels.

Buzzfeed News UK senior reporter Emily Dugan won the print/online category at the 2018 Bar Council Legal Reporting Awards, while the broadcast category was won by BBC Radio 4’s File On 4 team.

The awards recognise the “media’s role in promoting a greater understanding of the law to the public”. The Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales and also acts as a watchdog.

Dugan (pictured) won for her story, headlined: “A Record Number Of People Are Representing Themselves In Court – This Is What It’s Like”.

She told Press Gazette she spent three days in Birmingham’s civil and family courts to tell the stories of those who have been forced to represent themselves in court due to major legal aid reforms.

Dugan, formerly of the Independent, said legal aid has not had the scrutiny it deserves “given that the cuts to legal aid have been undermining our justice system on a scale that a lot of people don’t realise”.

She added: “The challenge in reporting it is perhaps that people felt they knew in the abstract that legal aid was something that was being cut back but didn’t necessarily know how that translated to ordinary life.

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“So I wanted to find a way of telling it in a human way but also have a bigger news revelation.”

Dugan said it is often still challenging for journalists to be accepted by clerks and judges but that “on the whole” she was welcomed in.

“Once they realised what I was writing about a lot of people seemed relieved,” she said.

“The judiciary is pretty critical of these cuts, although they’re not allowed to say publicly a lot of the time. They can see what it’s doing to justice.”

Since 2017, Dugan has been reporting on reforms to the justice system under Buzzfeed’s Access to Justice series and said she intends to continue work which scrutinises the Ministry of Justice and legal aid cuts.

Earlier this month Buzzfeed UK revealed that MoJ staff had called Dugan a “bitch” and “crazy” in internal communications after she obtained the messages through a subject data access request.

Dugan said: “The emails were disappointing to see but I never really wanted them to overshadow the reporting.

“For the last year-and-a-half I’ve just been going back over all the different areas where the department has really undermined justice for people and so I really wanted the focus to stay on that.”

The broadcast category of the Bar Council awards was won by BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 for its programme Disclosing the Truth, which reported on the failure of police and prosecutors in disclosing criminal evidence to the defence even in magistrates’ courts.

Not disclosing material obtained during criminal investigations can lead to evidence that may support the defence being missed.

Producer Alys Harte, reporter Allan Urry and editor Gail Champion were recognised for the programme alongside BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman who brought the findings to a wider audience on the News at Six and News at Ten bulletins.

Harte told Press Gazette: “What the investigation did is probably for the first time gave an indication of the true scale of the disclosure problems in the courts.

“Prior to that the line was that there was a problem that was confined to a very small number of very complex cases in the crown court, but we’d been hearing anecdotally from lawyers that that wasn’t the case.”

The team sent out a survey to lawyers across the UK and received more than 1,000 responses revealing their experiences with disclosure problems happening weekly or even daily.

“It was at every level of the courts and in the magistrates’ courts, and they’re the kind of courts that you or I could end up in quite easily,” Harte said.

“So it was very relevant to our audience because the people who were featured in the programme were just ordinary people who had been accused of things that the courts couldn’t prove that they did.”

Harte said it was “an interesting story from a legal reporting point of view” which became “really relevant to so many people’s lives” following the case of Liam Allan who was wrongly accused of rape and put under police investigation for two years before his trial collapsed in December 2017.

The disclosure problems in the 22-year-old student’s case stemmed from “a combination of error, lack of challenge, and lack of knowledge”, according to a joint review by the Met and Crown Prosecution Service, as reported by the BBC.

Harte said: “After our programme went out it seemed to break the spell.

“By the end of last year the Attorney General’s office was acknowledging that the failing spread across all kinds of criminal cases, so I think among other things it has helped to bring to the fore just how big a challenge that is in our criminal justice system.”

BBC correspondent Sanchia Berg and BBC digital current affairs assistant editor Stephen Mulvey were highly commended in the print/online category for their story headlined: The ‘completely childish’ man hanged for murder.

It examined how one of the last two men hanged in Britain was a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

The awards were judged by outgoing Chair of the Bar 2018 Andrew Walker QC, current Chair of the Bar Richard Atkins QC and Athena Markides, the current Chair of the Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee.

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