Just under a year ago Dame Frances Cairncross published her recommendations for ‘a sustainable future for journalism’ in the UK. Her Government-commissioned report identified court reporting as an area of concern, citing its decline (based on Brian Thornton’s work in this area), and opportunities afforded by digital courts reform. 

These observations sat in the context of a much broader report concerned with the relationship between online publishers and platforms, fair competition in online advertising, media literacy, the role of the BBC, new forms of funding and tax-relief, and the establishment of an Institute for Public Interest News.

Of course, the media policy landscape has changed somewhat in the meantime with a new Prime Minister and a new culture secretary; the announcement of dramatic cuts to journalism at the BBC amid political debate on its financing and role; and this week, widespread outrage in response to Number 10’s increasingly selective approach to journalistic political access. There is also a view – aired here by Brian Cathcart – that the whole Cairncross Review was a cynical distraction exercise to divert Parliamentary attention from the scrapping of Part II of the Leveson Inquiry. 

Despite this context, the Government has now responded to the review in a statement published at the end of January. It says it is ‘committed’ to taking the work forward and confirms acceptance of some recommendations, such as a fund for news innovation, and pledges ‘support’ of other aspects. Some recommendations it rejects outright – to the news industry lobbying groups’ approval – it will not proceed with the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News. Nor will it pursue reform of charity law, to assist not-for-profit journalistic organisations in their pursuit of charitable status. 

On court reporting and reforms, the Government provides a statement, under ‘Further Work’; it is reproduced here with added commentary:  

59. Courts must not just administer justice, but must be seen to be doing so too. The local media plays an important role in providing information about court proceedings and, by doing so, cultivating public trust and faith in the justice system. However, the presence of journalists in courts has declined significantly in recent years and the coverage of local justice has reduced as a result.

So far, nothing surprising or new … 

60. In order to promote court reporting, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has published new guidance for staff and established a national working group, alongside regional meetings, that brings media representatives together with court officials to discuss ways to promote media access to courts.

This is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-staff-on-supporting-media-access-to-courts-and-tribunals

This initiative and guidance are welcome additions but – as members of the Transparency Project have said before – we think the approach to engagement needs to be wider, and should include public interest groups and their representatives. Currently, it would seem, only traditional media groups have been included in these national and regional activities, when many other individuals play an important role in court reporting and observation: NGOs and charities, such as the Transparency Project (whose members actively report from the family court); academic researchers; and other experts.

61. Across government, organisations including DCMS, the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS are working together to identify what more can be done to facilitate journalists’ access to and reporting of court proceedings.

This is commendable, but as noted above, the exercise must include people from outside traditional media organisations, and also consider wider questions around open justice and digitised justice data – addressing many of the inconsistencies and difficulties we have previously discussed on this blog and in submissions to relevant committees. 

62. Alongside these changes, HMCTS is currently implementing a wide modernisation programme intended to ‘bring new technology and modern ways of working to the way justice is administered’. The programme has introduced new online services across jurisdictions and is piloting hearings conducted by video only. Many of these changes will involve new ways of delivering open justice and HMCTS is exploring ways of providing specific and easy-to-access information about court cases, hearings and judgements to support the media’s role in reporting what is going on within the justice system.

We continue to monitor the courts modernisation programme as closely as we can and have been involved in some discussions around open justice in the context of the court’s programme of reform. However, we are concerned that there has still been no meaningful public or specialist consultation on the implication of digital reforms for open justice, nor evidence that impactful changes in practice are underpinned by a sufficient level of independent research. 

63. HMCTS is soon to publish refreshed guidance drawing on the experience of court staff and reporters. This will include an updated protocol agreed with the News Media Association and Society of Editors governing the distribution of magistrates’ court lists and documents. DCMS will continue to liaise with HMCTS on further developments on this modernisation and reform programme, and will continue to explore what further work government can do to support court reporters and court reporting.

This guidance, drawing on practical experience, sounds most helpful, and we were pleased that two of our members were given opportunity to comment on issues relating to the family court.  Speaking more generally about the work on non-family courts and tribunals, we suggest that HMCTS’s focus on engagement and negotiation with traditional media, while important, also means that issues around public access to the courts get overlooked, with Court personnel often seeming confused about the information to which an ordinary member of the public is entitled (e.g. refusing to provide case details or wrongly prohibiting legitimate activity, such as note-taking). Additionally, open justice and transparency cannot be delivered by media alone

Our overall assessment, then, is that it’s welcome to see the Government dedicate a significant portion of its response to court reporting, and the aforementioned initiatives are encouraging, but our existing concerns remain, in terms of the exclusive approach to media engagement, and the overlooked (tough) questions about the future handling of justice data in new digital systems. 

Also see: 

Dr Judith Townend, a member of the core group of the Transparency Project, is senior lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex. She is working with the Open Government Network on a future national commitment to open justice, and will speak on this topic at an IALS’ Information Law and Policy Centre panel event on digital court reform on 10 February 2020. 

We have a small favour to ask! 
The Transparency Project is a registered charity in England & Wales run largely by volunteers who also have full-time jobs. We’re working hard to secure extra funding so that we can keep making family justice clearer for all who use the court and work within it. We’d be really grateful if you were able to help us by making a small one-off (or regular!) donation through our Just Giving page. You can find our page, and further information here
Thanks for reading!