Mar 12

Courts, news and the record: a shocking information gap

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.

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