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Weekly newspapers kept in the dark over criminal cases

Two of Archant’s weekly titles have locked horns with their local court service because they are not receiving case lists.

The Herts Advertiser and Welwyn and Hatfield Times say they have been kept in the dark about cases at St Alban’s Magistrates for seven months.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw yesterday described the situation as “bonkers”.

Advertiser reporter David Wrottesley said: “We have asked that they start sending them again but they gave us excuses such as the computer system is down.

“They told our sister paper, the Welwyn and Hatfield Times, that it would be a breach of the Data Protection Act, even though the Data Protection Commissioner has said that courts should continue to send out their lists without fear of breaching the act.

“We only have three reporters and so cannot send one to sit in the court in the hope that a relevant and interesting case turns up. St Albans Magistrates’ Courts therefore are not being covered and justice is not being done in public.

“The Open Justice Principle requires court proceedings to be held in public. The Home Office is keen for this principle to be upheld.

“[St Albans MP] Anne Main put the situation to Justice Secretary Jack Straw in Parliament yesterday.

“He spoke with her afterwards and said it was in his opinion bonkers, that court reporting was the bread and butter of local journalism and that he agreed with both Mrs Main and the Herts Advertiser.

“He also promised he would look into the issue immediately.”

Last October, St Albans Magistrates’ Courts information office was moved to the West Herts Courts Offices, in Watford. It was shortly after this move that the lists stopped coming.

The court deals with cases from a wide area including St Albans, Potters Bar, Borehamwood, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield, Radlett and Harpenden.

Mrs Main told the paper she raised it in Parliament because she was “so disgusted” by the situation.

She said: “Championing the people’s right to witness court proceedings is vital otherwise criminals are not paying the full penalty.”

A spokesman for Her Majesty’s Courts Services said: “The Government believes that it is important for the press to have access to what is happening in the criminal courts.

“We are reviewing the national picture with regard to providing information to the press and will be in a position to say more when our enquiries are complete.”


Sarah Cosgrove (30/04/2008 12:39:42)
In my three years here we’ve never recieved court lists from Waltham Forest Magistrates Court despite several requests. I even arranged a meeting to try and get somewhere but was told it was impossible as lists arrived electronically every morning in a non-emailable form.
I mentioned cutting and pasting them into a daily email but just got blank looks in response.
The local courts press officer is very helpful but hasn’t been able to sort it out either.
Consequently I can count the number of times I have covered cases at the court on both hands.