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September 13, 2014updated 19 Sep 2014 5:01pm

Scottish prosecutors to withhold details of criminal charges before cases reach court because of Data Protection concerns

By Cleland Thom

A new restriction on reporting Scottish courts went largely unnoticed, but will have a serious affect on crime reporting north of the border.

In the past, journalists in Scotland have been able to see complaints and indictments for note-taking purposes before cases begin in court.

But courts are now withholding these details from journalists. The decision means journalists will be unable to report charges before they reach court.

They could miss cases entirely if they call in court with no prior notice.

The Scottish Lord Justice General, Brian Gill, announced the changes because of "significant concerns" about revealing sensitive and personal data under the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998.

Scots freelance court reporter Campbell Thomas condemned the decision.

He said: "It’s absurd that journalists are being prevented from seeing information that is going to be made freely available in court anyway.

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"It has already been established under the DPA that in current cases, the clerk will normally release information to the media if it’s been given in open court, unless there are any unfair implications for an individual.

"Up to now, the unfairness test has only been used when deciding whether to release information on cases after they had finished some time ago."

Thomas, the Chartered Institute of Journalists' Scottish representative, added: "Lord Gill’s ruling goes against the century-old common law rule of open justice, where justice must be seen to be done. It will hinder journalists’ ability to cover court cases thoroughly and accurately on behalf of the public."

He said: "The current practice gives journalists an opportunity to attend and report on noteworthy cases. But it is now clear that the information being disclosed is excessive for this purpose. The decision sets a dangerous precedent in a democratic society."

The CIoJ has condemned the decision. A spokeswoman said: "The decision goes against the spirit of transparency and accessibility for reporting set out in the 2012 Court of Appeal ruling involving The Guardian and Westminster Magistrates Court."

The court decided that journalists covering court hearings should be able to see case material to aid that coverage. But the ruling does not apply to Scotland.

An ICO spokesperson said: "There is a balance to be struck between publishing enough information to make sure the justice system functions effectively, and considering the expectations of the people whose data is included within that information.

"This is particularly acute before a trial, when guilt is yet to be established but transparency is important.

"Ultimately, we’d expect careful consideration to be given about how much information is appropriate to share and when. Where an individual is unhappy about procedures adopted, they should raise their concerns with the courts in the first instance."

Cleland Thom runs media law refresher courses.

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