Top lawyer warns that decline of court reporters means 'justice operates unseen and unheard by public' - Press Gazette

Top lawyer warns that decline of court reporters means 'justice operates unseen and unheard by public'

British justice is not being seen to be done because press seats in courts are almost always empty, a senior barrister has suggested.

Andrew Langdon QC says court reporters are in decline and may soon be “largely a thing of the past”.

He says members of the public are getting “no professional narrative” of the “way we arrive at justice”.

Langdon, chairman of the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has outlined his concerns in a legal magazine.

“Due to the decline in court reporters, justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by the public,” he writes in the latest issue of Counsel.

“Court reporters, and especially court reporters from local newspapers, have been declining in number for years and may soon be largely a thing of the past.”.

He adds: “The large majority of cases, although conducted in public hearings up and down the land, and although producing outcomes that often dramatically affect the lives of the citizens concerned, operate essentially unseen and unheard by the public.

“The way in which the outcomes are arrived at is thus something of a mystery for the large majority of the uninitiated public.

“Worse, outcomes are often supposed to be influenced by factors that are by and large mythical.”

Langdon says judges’ ruling or sentencing remarks can be obtained by journalists “who have picked up only fragments of a story”.

He goes on: “What is missing is an accessible account by a reporter of what happened at the trial; the allegation, the rebuttal, the dynamic, and the personal consequences for the parties or the witnesses or others affected by what is unfolding in court.

“Traditionally most courts have a few seats reserved for the press. Nowadays they are almost always empty.

“The public receive no professional narrative of the way we arrive at justice.”

Langdon suggests citizen journalists are stepping into the void.

“Increasingly and perplexingly, into the vacuum drop one-sided reports via social media, not from professional journalists, but from aggrieved parties who, like single-issue campaigners or nefarious pressure groups with their own agenda, have access to mass communication and so can feed a narrative that often grossly distorts reality,” he says.

“If it were not for this fairly recent phenomenon, the decline in court reporting would perhaps matter less.

“Why, after all, does the public need to know about what actually happens in court?

“One answer, I suppose, is that some level of public legal education is desirable, especially when some politicians seem inclined to trample over the hitherto relatively sacrosanct territory of judicial independence.”

He says the problem is probably at its “most acute” in family courts.

“A decline in the number of court reporters and the limited number of published judgments, exacerbated by individuals and pressure groups who use social media to promote their particular agenda, often results in attacks not merely upon the process but on the judges and the lawyers trying to assist them,” he adds.

“Even where cases are covered by the press, they rarely link to the judgment or set out the full context, and some are downright misleading.”


3 thoughts on “Top lawyer warns that decline of court reporters means 'justice operates unseen and unheard by public'”

  1. Quite right, Mr Langdon. It’s another example of management cuts depriving readers of thousands of good stories. Relying on police PR and Neighbourhood Watch newsletters is a joke but that seems to be what we’re left with.
    Local weeklies here in Kent/Sussex carry stories with identical wording to the badly-written drivel the cops decide to let us have through a “public engagement officer” or somesuch.
    Throughout the early years of my undistinguished career, starting in 1964, crime and courts were a mainstay of local coverage for provincial dailes, evenings and weeklies and carried huge reader appeal. Unlit bicycle, burglary, murder – everything was reported from local mags’ courts up to Assizes (as we had then). Every hearing, every remand, every trial, every verdict. Result – a hugely popular and crucial service for readers, police and community.
    Back in 2014 I attended a magistrates’ court in Sussex as a character witness for a friend who had been wrongly accused. I sat in the public seats while waiting for his case and heard a dozen cases involving allegations of theft, violence, drug dealing, you name it. A bagful of good stories. Not one reporter was in the press seats.

  2. all this is true, and newspaper poverty is a lot of the explanation.
    but there is another: the commercialisation of court listings, which means that you must either pay a huge subscription fee for advance listings – of courts at practically every level, with the honourable exception of the supreme court – or wait until 4pm for the public listing of the cases being heard the next day. this means that freelances who cannot afford to spent all day every day in court have no way of organising their time in advance to cover interesting or important cases beyond the few that are going to grab headlines and have staff reporters assigned to them. the ‘sale’ of these lists is a scandal and needs to be reversed.

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