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Senior QC bemoans ’empty press benches’ in courts

scales-of-justiceJustice is not being seen to be done because press seats in courts are almost always empty, a senior barrister has suggested.

Court reporters are in decline and may soon be “largely a thing of the past”, according to Bar Council chairman Andrew Langdon QC.

The public is getting “no professional narrative” of the “way we arrive at justice”, he warned in an article in the latest issue of Counsel, the Bar Council’s monthly magazine.

“Due to the decline in court reporters, justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by the public,” he wrote.

“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.”

Mr Langdon went on: “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.”

Judges’ rulings or sentencing remarks could be obtained by journalists “who have picked up only fragments of a story”, he went on, adding: “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.”

Mr Langdon suggested that the void in reporting was now being occupied by non-journalists.

“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 wrote.

“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.”

The problem was probably at its “most acute” in family courts, he went on.

“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.

“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.”

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  • May 8, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    A lot of papers rely on press handouts from the police , which although usually accurate do not give a fair and balanced report, which is a pre-requisite for any court report, though defence solicitors do not seem to notice that no mitigation or defence evidence is published.
    As for family courts, reporting restrictions often make it impossible to write a sensible report, with names and relationships often having to be left out, making it not worth the trouble.
    Freelance court reporters should be having a field day. Problem is no one wants to pay them.

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