Court staff can sometimes be quite protective over court files. Whilst to most journalists this may seem unnecessary, the court staff may see it as ensuring they are not releasing confidential information or breaching any data protection laws. Most of the time this boils down to a misunderstanding of what the media is entitled to see.
Thankfully, HMCTS has recently issued some helpful guidance to court staff setting out how to deal with media requests for documents on the court file.
It reiterates that open justice is a long standing and vital feature of our legal system. The public has a right to know what happens in courts and this is essential to ensure public confidence in the justice system. The media has the responsibility to ensure that the public is kept well informed of cases and the operation of the justice system. It is difficult to effectively carry out that responsibility without the help from court staff, so this guidance is very welcome!
So what does that mean for journalists? If you are attending a hearing and you are refused access, or if you have been refused copies of documents from the court file, you can direct the court staff to the guidance which reminds them of the correct way to deal with such requests. Court staff have been reminded of the main principles of dealing with journalists including:
• Give details of reporting restrictions and other relevant information about a case;
• Journalists are entitled to the full name of judges and magistrates (and their Legal Adviser) – but no other personal details;
• Don’t say ‘no’ or ‘no comment’ without giving a reason. Tell the journalist why the information can’t be given;
• Respond to requests for information promptly. Journalists have very tight deadlines to keep to – if the court staff can’t make that deadline, they have been told to let the journalist know and explain there will be a delay;
• Always respond even if the information can’t be given – it is pure courtesy; and
• Get to know the journalists who regularly attend, encourage them to ask questions – build a working relationship!
The guidance also covers attendance at hearings. As most of us will know, most courts will have dedicated press seating which media should be given priority for. Court staff have been told that media should not be made to report from the public gallery due to risk of intimidation from friends / relatives of parties in the case. The guidance also sets out that journalists are allowed to take notes at the hearing, and they are allowed to use text-based devices to communicate from the court, including live broadcasting on Twitter and other social media networks (unlike the general public who need the Court’s permission!).
Perhaps a key part of the guidance reminds Court staff that it is the journalists, and not them, that are subject to reporting restrictions. If there are reporting restrictions in place, this does not prevent journalists from being present at the hearing or accessing certain court documents – the onus is on the journalist to ensure they don’t publish something that breaches those reporting restrictions.
It isn’t all about the court staff either. Journalists also need to do their bit to help:
• Make sure you are familiar with the court
• Refer court staff to the HMCTS guidance if you think they need help
• If you are using a text-based device from the hearing, don’t let it be a distraction because the judge can stop you from using it
• Unauthorised tape recording of proceedings is contempt of court
• Photography and filming are strictly forbidden
• Take appropriate identification with you such as your UK press card
This guidance should be welcomed by Court staff and the media. It aims to facilitate an efficient working relationship which underpins the principle of open justice.