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Minister in bid to settle court lists wrangle

Magistrates courts are to be told to make court decisions available electronically to local papers in future in a bid to resolve the dispute over access to the lists.

Journalists have complained of prohibitive levels of fees being imposed for the list of decisions being supplied, with some newspapers being forced to drop some court coverage as a result.

Now Justice Minister Maria Eagle has stepped into the row by pledging that the lists will be made available in electronic form to reduce costs.

While making no concessions as to the disputed legal basis for the fees requested, she reaffirmed the importance of providing local newspapers with magistrates’ court decisions.

In a letter to the Newspaper Society, she says: “I believe that providing information for newspapers on court listings and the outcome of court hearings is an important part of increasing the confidence in the criminal justice system and deterring offending.

“Ministers and the judiciary have, over many years, consistently stressed the importance of providing information to the press.

“HMCS [Her Majesty’s Court Service] will be advising all magistrates courts to provide details of court lists electronically wherever possible. There will still be a charge for this – but because it is more efficient for HMCS to provide the information electronically the cost will be significantly lower”.

The letter comes after the NS raised the issue with her in response to some of the recent difficulties encountered by local and regional papers.

The row erupted in March when some court centres began levying photocopying charges of 50p a page for continuing to supply hard copies of the lists.

The Bradford and Telegraph Argus, which estimated that the cost of obtaining the lists from all 12 magistrates courts on its patch would be £40,000 a year, was one of the papers forced to drop some court coverage as a result.

Both the Society of Editors and the NS have recently been campaigning on the issue.

Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said: “This is welcome progress – publication of the results of court cases is essential for public confidence in the criminal justice system.”