What is the role of the press as part of the open justice process?

Journalism Reader Dr David Clarke gives his views on Open Justice in the Sheffield Telegraph‘s weekly Forum debate. He was asked to answer the question: What is the role of the press as part of the open justice process? 

courtroom BBC
Jury members take their oaths in a British courtroom. How can we make courts more user-friendly and less intimidating to users who are not judges, barristers and other court staff? (credit: BBC)

Earlier this year a senior barrister, Andrew Langdon QC, warned that ‘justice operates unseen and unheard by the public’ in much of Britain. Twenty years ago courts were full of reporters and ordinary members of the public. But today, in many cities and towns, the Press benches are often empty.

Why does it matter? Open justice is one of the bedrocks of our democracy. The Press act as the eyes and ears of the public in reporting what goes on in our courts. As one judge put it “justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done” (R v Sussex Justices 1924). But today only a tiny percentage of court cases are covered despite the massive expansion of online news outlets. Court reporting requires skill and training to master shorthand and understand the many legal restrictions. As a result it is no surprise that few bloggers and citizen journalists are spotted in our courts.

What is the solution?  The government has toyed with the idea of allowing cameras into courtrooms and the Lord Chief Justice now permits journalists to live tweet from trials. But I feel these are gimmicks that will not solve a much more serious obstacle for open justice. In order report fairly and accurately from court reporters must have access to basic information such as a list of the charges faced by a defendant. In other countries, such as the USA, access to court documents and transcripts is regarded as a basic right of every citizen. Yet in England access to this information, paid for by our taxes, continues to be restricted.

Courts also need to be made less intimidating places. In Sheffield Crown Court some of the public galleries allow only a restricted view. The acoustics are so poor it is often a struggle to follow the proceedings. In my own personal experience the appearance of a notebook in the public gallery has become such a rare sight that some staff have come to believe permission is required to take notes. This is despite the fact there is no law to prevent anyone taking notes in a public court. In my view, until British courts enter the 21st century and become more open to all their users, then what goes on there will continue to remain a mystery to much of the public.

Dr Clarke was formerly a court reporter for the Sheffield Star. He now teaches Media Law and Regulation on the undergraduate and postgraduate Journalism courses at Sheffield Hallam University.