Policy and Public Affairs Officer Sophie Malleson on the decision to broadcast judges’ rulings, the importance of court reporting for open justice, and the rules journalists must follow.
Last week the UK government took steps to allow judges’ rulings to be filmed, broadcast, and watched online by the public. It laid an order in Parliament, called the Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020, which will permit sentencing remarks in some serious high-profile criminal cases heard in Crown Courts to be watched by TV and online audiences.
It’s a common cliché to say “justice must be seen to be done”, but it’s also the founding principle of courts in a democratic society − whether this be at criminal trial, a Coroner’s Court, or other sort of hearing.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of “open justice”, the important principle that judicial proceedings should be characterised by openness and transparency. Journalists reporting on court cases play an important role in this, telling the public what happens in court so they can see justice in action.
Generally speaking, what is said in court can be reported in the press. Newspapers are allowed to publish anything that has been said in court or used as evidence, including evidence or testimony given by either a witness or a defendant. They do not have to check whether the evidence given is true, but they must report what was said as evidence accurately.
When reporting on a case, a newspaper normally includes details about the defendants and witnesses such as their name, age and address. Normally, newspapers will report only part of an address (for example John Smith of High Street). However, journalists are allowed to publish someone’s full address, if this is necessary to identify someone.
Often, photos of anyone involved in a court case will be included to help readers to identify the people involved in court cases. Police often also give photos to journalists for this reason. If a newspaper does not have a photo, a journalist might use another photo already available in the public domain. This may include photos taken from social media (more on this here). If a newspaper cannot find a suitable photo, the editor may send a photographer to take a picture. Taking and publishing a photo of someone involved in a court case is in the public interest but photographers must not harass people when taking a photo.
There are occasions where a judge might place limits on what can be reported, in some instances and for certain reasons. For example, to prevent publication of material that might prejudice a jury the judge might put in place ‘reporting restrictions’. Victims of sexual offences are granted lifelong anonymity in law and their identities mustn’t be published without their explicit consent. There are also protections in place to protect children who are witnesses or victims of crime.
Part of our work as a regulator involves helping people understand the rules which newspapers and magazines must follow including what to expect from journalists reporting on court cases. If you attend court as a witness, victim of crime or defendant and don’t know not know what to expect we have information on topics, including on court reporting, and for survivors of sexual offences.
Allowing judge’s remarks to be filmed and broadcast in some cases is seen by many as a step towards greater openness, transparency and accountability in the justice system. This step has been generally well-received by broadcast and press journalists alike, who see it as a further step to ensure that what happens in our courts is seen and heard, and accountable to the public.