In the Media

Loss of court reporters is a blow to open justice

PUBLISHED December 7, 2009

Open justice, an essential ingredient of a democracy, is usually understood to mean the absence of secret trials and the right of the individual ? subject to very few carefully defined exceptions ? to enter any of our courts and watch proceedings, without hindrance. But most people do not find it practical or easy to make such personal visits, so the principle of open justice has been extended to include the presence of representatives of the media, acting as the people's proxy, reporting on behalf of the population what goes on in our courts.

That's all very well, but it only works if those reporters are there to perform that important task. What's happened over the past few years is that their capacity to be the eyes and ears of the public in our courts has fast diminished. There are no longer enough of them. It is abundantly clear that the courts are no longer being properly reported. Open justice has become a principle valid in theory but largely absent in practice.

Once upon a time there were journalists who were specialist court reporters. Their job was to roam around the courtrooms of their town or region and provide the readers of their newspapers with a steady diet of the criminal cases in the courts. Not for them the limelight coverage of celebrities who had transgressed, or sensations at the Old Bailey.

Their patch was the humdrum day-to-day comings and goings of alleged offenders who appeared before the magistrates courts and the provincial crown courts, defendants usually unknown to the general public or the national newspapers but newsworthy within their localities. Good reporters were part of the fabric of the court system. They knew the lawyers, judges, magistrates and administrators. They knew which trials were coming up, and which would be important.

The demise of so many local and regional newspapers and the intense financial pressures, which have caused even the survivors to reduce drastically both staff and coverage, means that we knew far more about what was happening in our courts 50 or 20 years ago than we know today. The relatively few extraordinary or celebrity-ridden cases are written about at length; the vast majority of trials in effect take place in secret. Injustices flourish unseen and, just as importantly, people remain ignorant of the outcome ? or even the existence ? of trials involving crimes and criminals in their locality.

Last week the justice secretary, Jack Straw, published guidelines that would promote the publication, largely on the internet, of the results of criminal trials. As far as it goes, this is to be welcomed, though care must be taken as to the information revealed about criminals and victims. But such publicity can't replace the court reporters of yesteryear; they will soon have vanished for ever. The dry catalogue of trial results Straw envisages will not expose bad judges and magistrates, nor faults in the trial process, nor sheer injustice.

I worry too about Straw's concentration on reassuring people that criminals have been duly punished. Sure, justice must be seen to be done. "It is vital people know that criminals will not escape the consequences of their crimes," he says. But don't defendants who have been acquitted also deserve publicity?