An editor has hit out at cuts to the justice system which he says have led to his reporters missing out on covering important cases despite being present in court.
Ramzy, pictured, said he was sometimes having to withdraw reporters from court because of a failure on the part of court staff to make them aware of when, or why, certain hearings were taking place.
In one case, he had to rely on a press release to cover a murder case after a defendant pleaded guilty to a “brutal, sexually motivated” killing after the Gazette’s reporter had returned to the office.
In an editorial, he said the Gazette had been unable to ascertain from the Old Bailey why the trial of Finsbury Park murderer Kasim Lewis had been scaled down into a “for mention” court appearance – despite one of his journalists repeatedly calling the court and attending in person in a bid to find out.
Wrote Ramzy: “The justice system is shrinking away from press scrutiny as the years go by. I don’t mean anyone is deliberately keeping us at arm’s length – but whether it’s down to cuts that mean court staff are swamped, or a failure to train them about their responsibilities to help the press, it can be really hard for us to access the information we need to report on cases.”
“There can be a large number of ‘for mention’ hearings in the course of a case, most of which will be of little public interest (say, to arrange delivery of a document, or to formally notify the court of some housekeeping matter), and some of which we won’t be legally allowed to report at all.
“No one could tell us what the ‘for mention’ hearing on Monday afternoon would involve, though we did manage to secure the help of a barrister to decipher a particularly obscure acronym on the court listing. Since no newspaper has the resources to spend a week sitting in court on spec, we called it a day.”
Lewis, who had previously been convicted of another killing, pleaded guilty to what prosecutors called a “brutal, sexually motivated” murder hours after the Gazette’s reporter left court.
Ramzy added: “[This was] the second time in just over a year he has dodged press attention and racked up significant costs to the court system by changing his plea to guilty at the very last minute.
“As resources diminish, it’s clear that keeping court staff informed about hearings, and aware of their duties to the press – and, by extension, keeping the press and public informed – isn’t considered a priority.
“It’s the reason the Met’s central press office took two weeks to answer our questions about the Archway hit-and-run that left a 12-year-old girl in hospital; it’s the reason Islington Police hasn’t answered a single one of our questions on Twitter since 2018; it’s the reason we have to fight to be given basic documents every time we attend an inquest.
“The press is supposed to be the public’s eyes and ears, but if we’re filibustered out of court we have little choice but to rely on press releases from the authorities we’re meant to be scrutinising.
“There are worse casualties of austerity, but all cuts have consequences.”
The Ministry of Justice declined to comment on the case when approached by HTFP, but a spokesman urged journalists to contact its press office for help if faced with a situation such as the one Ramzy described.