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Judge bars reporters from court over claim they could ‘overwhelm’ defendant

Two reporters were barred from a court case after a judge said their presence might “overwhelm” a teenage defendant who stabbed a police dog and his handler.

Five journalists turned up at Stevenage Youth Court this morning to cover the case, in which a 16-year-old from London was on trial accused of stabbing PC Dave Wardell and PD Finn, a police dog.

But when District Judge Joanna Matson, who was presiding over the hearing, became aware the five were in attendance she asked two of them to leave, claiming a full press bench would “overwhelm” the defendant.

Judge Matson gave the journalists “two or three minutes” to seek legal advice and make a decision before beginning the case.

PD Finn with his handler PC Dave Wardell

PD Finn with his handler PC Dave Wardell

Eventually Hertfordshire Mercury chief reporter Sam Meadows and a Press Association journalist were barred, while reporters from Stevenage-based weekly The Comet, ITV and South West News Service were allowed in – with an agreement for copy to be shared.

Sam agreed to be one of the two to miss out as the Mercury regularly takes copy from SWNS.

According to a report by Sam for the Mercury, Judge Matson failed to state what law she was using in support of the decision when challenged.

A spokesman for the Judicial Service told the Mercury Judge Matson has now backtracked on her decision.

Sam told HTFP: “Courts understandably need to be cautious when dealing with young people, but the role of the press in the court system is vital.

“Judges and magistrates should be able to quote a valid law when making these decisions, and not overreach their powers. They need to recognise that for justice to be done, it needs to be seen to be done.

“Given the massive public interest in the case of Police Dog Finn, barring members of the press can not be justified.”

Mike Dodd, legal editor at the Press Association and co-author of the journalism law textbook, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, added: “The District Judge was wrong to try to keep journalists out of court because she thought there were too many of them. Journalists have a statutory right to attend Youth Court hearings, and the law places no limits on how many might be there.
“This appears to be a continuing problems with Youth Courts – it is to be hoped that all Youth Courts will be reminded that journalists have the right to attend.
“In this case, the District Judge appears to have placed the defendant’s welfare above the requirements of open justice.”

A spokesman for the judiciary said: “District Judge Matson was concerned this morning in Stevenage Youth Court about the impact the number of press in court might have on a 16-year-old defendant.

“She decided to limit the number of reporters in court for this reason, and asked reporters to agree among themselves as to which three should sit in court.

“She also asked that those who did come into court share their notes with those outside. Later, the judge allowed all reporters to come in to court and made provision for those who had missed part of the proceedings to be given notes of what had been said.”

The teenager had denied one count of serious assault against PC Wardell and one of damaging property relating to Finn, arguing he was in fear for his life when he attacked the pair, who were responding to reports of a robbery.

But finding him guilty, Judge Matson said: “Stabbing a dog you know to be a police dog and lunging a knife at a police officer were not necessary or proportionate and I do not find he believed them to be at the time.

“I therefore accept the evidence of PC Wardell in its entirety and find the prosecution have proved that the defendant did not find it necessary to take the actions he did that day and find him guilty of both offences.”

Finn became the subject of an online campaign to get police dogs recognised as more than property following the alleged attack. Both he and PC Wardell have made a full recovery, and Finn retired from service in March.

6 comments

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  • May 12, 2017 at 9:41 am
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    Sounds like good common sense. Since all the reporters would have been taking the same notes, more or less, no harm done, except by the idiot.

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  • May 12, 2017 at 12:04 pm
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    I think one of the most surprising elements of this case is the fact that so many reporters were allowed to leave their desks in the first place. Almost a story in itself these days to have reporters in court!

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  • May 12, 2017 at 12:36 pm
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    Paperboy – it is not good common sense. Talk about indirect censorship by the judge. Unless the press bench was absolutely packed out then it is no business of a judge to determine how many reporters are present. As for the youth possibly being “overwhelmed” – oh dear: tears are streaming down my ageing face. He wasn’t exactly “overwhelmed” was he when he attacked the PC and the dog. Courts are there to punish not to dish out vocal cups of tea. An old saying comes to mind:” If you don’t want to do the time (i.e. appear in court and poss go to prison) then don’t do the crime.”I am not a “hang em high and flog them type” type but really this judge should get a life and let journalists get on with their job. Only recently a leading QC expressed concern in UK Press Gazette that not enough journalists are covering courts – implying that this was a bad thing as it means the bench may get away with things it would not have dared tried years ago. Same with councils. I think the newspapers concerned should make a strong protest to the court.

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  • May 13, 2017 at 8:05 am
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    There is simply no law that allows this to happen. Anything else is irrelevant.

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  • May 13, 2017 at 2:58 pm
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    Perhaps unfortunate but a reasonable compromise was reached. Twas good that judge relented too.
    Very lovely also that so many bods were able to attend in these hard times.

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