Occasionally, you are woken up by a collection of facts which you ought to have known but which reveal that you’ve been asleep. So it was this week when I dropped into a seminar on the transparency of the British court system.
Justice isn’t as open and visible as we might think. In fact the extent to which we don’t know what is happening in courts – particularly magistrates courts – up and down the country is shocking. The reason that this has got as bad as it has isn’t exactly down to the secretiveness or obstruction of the people who run the courts, although they aren’t going to win any awards for openess any time soon.
The problem lies in the decline of local papers. Some local papers have closed and any websites trying to replace them are not likely to have the resources to report courts day in, day out. But most local papers have survived by endlessly slimming down their newsrooms and the amount of news they print.
In the early 1970s, when I worked as a local reporter in the city of York, the evening paper there sent one (and often two) reporters to the magistrates court every working day to the end of the session. I remember writing up, sometimes in a single paragraph for the dullest, every case that was heard. Most of this material, parochial as it can seem, made it into the paper. That paper, the Evening Press, carried enough news every day for it truly to claim that it was the “paper of record” for that city of around 100,000 people.
There may be some papers still filling that role. But the hollowing out of the strength of most regional papers means that courts aren’t being reported; justice isn’t being seen to be done. A series of speakers stood up at this week’s seminar to point out that this bad situation is made worse by the refusal of the authorities to make obvious moves which would alleviate the lack of coverage, such as posting basic information about cases online.
A couple of people are trying to gather more information and trying to do something about this. One of them is the King’s Cross activist and blogger Will Perrin, whose observations and Transparency Charter are here.
Update 2/3/12: City University grad student Jamie Thunder tells me the cheering news that the Evening Press in York still has a reporter specialising in reporting local courts.
Update 6/3/12: Excellent summary of the issue here by Meeja Law blogger Judith Townend. Audio and slides from the talks here, including a link to Adam Wagner’s human rights law blog which makes the connection to the new row over government proposals for secret trials.