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November 1, 2022updated 14 Nov 2022 6:10am

Justice Committee urges fixes to open justice as digital media fails to ‘fill gap’ left by print decline

By Charlotte Tobitt

Digital media has failed to fill the gap the decline in print media has left in the reporting of court proceedings, a parliamentary report has warned.

The Justice Committee urged for barriers against the media and wider public attending court to be removed, suggesting the creation of a digital portal so full information on cases can be accessed more freely.

The committee’s report on open justice and court reporting in the digital age, published on Tuesday, found that the decline in news coverage of the courts is “concerning” and “has had a negative effect on open justice in England and Wales”.

It made several suggestions for HMCTS to make covering courts easier for stretched reporters, including by building on an ongoing trial of software called Courtsdesk News that is designed to help accredited journalists discover newsworthy cases and all the information they need to know about them including reporting restrictions.

[Read more: MoJ ‘Reporters’ Charter’ sets out rights for journalists covering UK courts]

Courtsdesk, which launched in 2020 with initial funding from the Nesta Future of News grant scheme and a pilot agreement with HMCTS, told the committee its pilot so far had shown “there is very real evidence that improvements in the provision of information to journalists will have a large positive impact on their ability to produce court reports – and that this is already under way with documented success”.

It pointed to a trial with the UK’s second-largest regional news publisher – likely to be Newsquest based on this description – which it said had resulted in an average of 47 court stories published per week during the nine weeks of the trial. The publisher subsequently rolled out the platform across all of its locations in England and Wales after discovering it could “actually generate income over and above the cost of the service,” Courtnews said.

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In its report on Tuesday, the Justice Committee said “technology and organisational reform” of this kind should take place to “provide the media with the information it needs in a consistent manner, as soon as possible, to facilitate court reporting”.

The committee welcomed the plan to create a digital list of all court and tribunal lists within one single service, but said the proposal should be expanded to include all information including results, reporting restrictions
and documents. It also urged an update on when this will go live and pointed to the fact US courts provide better digital access to court documents.

Justice Committee chairman Sir Bob Neill said: “Since the turn of the century there has been a transformation in the media landscape. We no longer live in a world where national and local newspapers act as the eyes and ears of the public in the courtroom. However, digital media has so far failed to fill the gap in court reporting left by the decline in physical media. More needs to be done to address this critical gap and the loss of public understanding of how justice is applied.”

The report also advocated the piloting of regional communication and information officers to support media and public access to hearings, as suggested by former HMCTS director of communications Ed Owen. He warned that the decline in court reporting had eroded personal relationships between journalists and court staff and led to “frequent complaints from media organisations claiming that journalists were prevented from gaining access to court hearings of information”.

These officers could provide a point of contact for journalists to complain about access issues, including to remote hearings, or other complaints, the committee said.

Remote hearings via video link were an innovation introduced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that have remained a part of the system, albeit to a lesser extent. But journalists have repeatedly reported problems in getting access, which must be granted by the judge in the case, and the report noted an ” inconsistency of approach” in granting permission. The committee said HMCTS should begin to collect and publish data on remote access requests.

The report said evidence from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that its journalists were repeatedly turned away from county court possession hearings “presents a concerning picture of the practical reality of open justice”.

It added that the “legal and constitutional status of open justice is immaterial if journalists face the sort of hurdles” they experienced.

“Those barriers have the potential to create a chilling effect for journalists and the public by discouraging them from exercising their right to attend hearings.”

Neil added: “Too often, significant patience and tenacity is required to access court proceedings that it is our democratic right to witness. The Courts & Tribunal Service needs to do more remove barriers to the media and public coming to court rooms, not just by doing more to publicise information but actually welcoming them in and showing how the justice system works.

“They should also embrace the opportunities that new media and technologies allow, understanding how broadcasting of certain court proceedings and use of social media can give greater access to court. If open justice is to be improved in the long term, it will take place in the digital sphere and the court system must put in place the framework to facilitate that.”

Another area of concern was the “lack of transparency” within the Single Justice Procedure, which means people charged with minor offences such as speeding can have their cases decided by a magistrate without going to court. It means cases involving public figures such as David Beckham are among those risking going under the radar.

The report said: “The Government should review the procedure and seek to enhance its transparency by ensuring that any information that would have been available had the cases been heard in open court is published in a timely fashion.”

Part of the concern over a decline in open justice through the media was around the public’s understanding of court proceedings and how they are functioning.

In July, BBC NewsITNSky News and PA Media won a 20-year battle to begin filming and broadcasting sentencing hearings in the crown courts, showing only judges’ remarks. Last week the first murder sentencing was broadcast live.

The Justice Committee felt no further parts of crown court proceedings should be filmed, but that the next step could be to broadcast sentencing hearings in magistrates’ courts or civil trials that do not involve oral evidence.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We fully support transparency in the justice system, including last week’s first-ever broadcast of a judge’s sentencing remarks in a murder case.

“We have also made court and tribunal judgments freely available from the National Archives and cemented journalists’ right to report trials and hearings in a new charter – ensuring they can continue keep the public informed.”

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