The British way of doing things, stay calm and carry on, the stiff upper lip – all of our famous characteristics seemed to be under attack in last week’s riots.
And yet the spontaneous public meetings, the thousands of people who gathered to oppose the disorder, the speed of the clean-up operation, and the public support for the police and the judicial system in dealing with alleged offenders, all suggest something different.
There also seems to be an appetite on the part of the public to know who was responsible for the last week’s mayhem (as well as seeing them punished).
However, there is a problem: a large percentage of defendants are aged 17 or younger. According to the Sunday Times, half of those arrested are under the age of 18, though the Daily Mail says it’s about 20pc.
Whatever the true figure, it is clear that a significant number of defendants are technically children and youths. Which means, of course, that they have been appearing in youth courts, with all that entails when it comes to court reporting. As every journalist knows, nothing can be published which identifies defendants or anyone ‘concerned in the proceedings.’
But in these exceptional times, is this the right approach? After all, the Prime Minister said only a few days ago that if you’re old enough to commit the crime, you’re old enough to take the punishment. And if that’s the case, should young offenders still be able to hide behind the cloak of anonymity?
It was striking that almost all the alleged rioters and looters went to great lengths to conceal their faces as they entered and left the courts, so it seems fair to assume that they fear publicity as much as the punishments meted out by the judges.
It was reported at the beginning of this week that the Home Secretary was likely to announce that the rules are to be relaxed, and youths charged with rioting and looting may be identified.
However, whilst the CPS did indeed issue a new guidance to its prosecutors, it’s clear that nothing has actually changed. The guidance is merely a re-statement of the existing law: when a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted, a youth court may relax the rule that s/he may not be identified, provided that it is in the public interest to do so.
The guidance informs prosecutors that they ‘should ask the court to review any reporting order that has been made and make representations as to how the court should exercise its discretion’.
The advice continues: ‘prosecutors should make representations that there are strong public interest grounds in lifting reporting restrictions in respect of:
• significant public disorder;
• serious offences which undermine the public’s confidence in the safety of their communities; and
• hate crimes.’
On the other hand, prosecutors have also been told that they ‘must carefully consider the welfare of the child or young person before making any representations. Particular care should be taken with children who are especially young’.
It’s all well and good for our leaders to talk about naming and shaming young offenders because of the exceptional nature of their (alleged) crimes. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the reality is rather different.
For all the rhetoric, local papers still cannot inform their readers who has been charged with looting and rioting offences, and who is appearing in court. We still have to wait to the end of each case, and even then, the guilty defendants can only be identified if the Magistrates exercise their discretion in favour of open justice.
Patience is a virtue – especially when it comes to reporting the youth courts.