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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Failing Open Justice at Britain’s biggest court centre

There used to be many more journalists at the RCJ working for the Press Association, other agencies and national newspapers. In 1980 I remember well over 20 journalists working there and using the press room on the ground floor.

On February 28, The Press Association’s news diary announced in the early morning that in the High Court there was “nothing listed”. What I presume they meant by this is that they did not detect any demand from the wider media for any alerting to cases that may be of interest.

There was no doubt there were journalists attending hearings and reporting what was going on, but it was disturbing that there was a clear disconnection between the significance of some of that day’s court hearings and the lack of publication in local, regional and national news media.

Britain’s biggest court complex contains 3.5 miles of corridors, over 1,000 rooms and across a multi-building complex hosts 120 courts and around 200 senior judges. Yet hardly anything substantial emerged in terms of media news coverage which in my opinion deserved to published.

In Court 19, before Mr Justice Ousely at 10.30 a.m., there was a judicial review of the Government’s refusal to allow a 16 year old Afghan refugee to seek sanctuary in the UK. It is a case that could give hope to thousands of other child asylum seekers across Europe.

The boy was listed as “ZS”, and was living in the Calais refugee camp when the French authorities cleared it in October 2016. He applied unsuccessfully to be brought to the UK under Section 67 of the Immigration Act, known as the Dubs amendment.

It is the first time a lone child asylum seeker has issued a challenge of this kind against the Home Secretary. Scouring the press, I could only trace a report arising from this day’s proceedings in the Guardian, provided by Diane Taylor.

I did my best to follow Press Association filing on this day and could not find any reports from this case being distributed. The hearing lasted three days, with Judgement being reserved.

Photo opp

There was a picture opportunity outside the Royal Courts of Justice where a group of activists promoted the cause of unaccompanied child refugees seeking asylum in the UK. This case arises out of a documentary film project “Calais Children: A Case to Answer” by Professor Sue Clayton who is a colleague of mine at Goldsmiths, University.

She said she was trying to do for the children of the present refugee crisis what people struggled to achieve for the children of the Kindertransport of 1938-9, explaining: “The triumph for me was to get a film accepted as evidence. In a way the biggest achievement of my life has been to get the lawyers to take this on. We have been comrades in arms on this for 18 months. We’ve all worked insane hours and suffered a lot of setbacks. It matters a lot to us.”

There were at least two other significant cases going on that day which did not produce any media coverage. The Government was giving its argument in Liberty’s challenge to the Snoopers’ Charter in Court 1. And in Court 5 there was the Court Martial Appeal of an RAF pilot who, having caused his plane to nosedive over 4,000 feet while using a digital camera, had his dismissal from the service reversed.

This was the case of Flt Lt Andrew Townshend who in February last year was accused of costing the Ministry of Defence millions of pounds when he accidentally deactivated the autopilot of the military passenger jet. The Voyager aircraft, which had 198 passengers and crew on board, plummeted 4,400ft over the Black Sea.

His original case was covered by nearly every national newspaper. His successful appeal was not.

Something clearly needs to be done. The Institute has made some recommendations for a multi-agency approach and sent a report to the senior judiciary, Lord Chancellor and Minister for Justice and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The report can be downloaded from the CIoJ’s website.

Suggestions include judges being trained to provide one-page summaries of their rulings for the media and public; online sound recordings of case rulings; court reporter apprenticeships at the Royal Courts of Justice; better access for journalists to courtrooms and case papers; and the setting up of judge and media ‘bench committees’ throughout the country to develop a partnership of understanding and ongoing promotion of the Open Justice principle.

Culture of secrecy

The journalism industry needs to be better resourced in terms of court reporters, and the judiciary needs to make it easier to find out what is going on and to report newsworthy proceedings. The growing culture of secrecy and anonymity is a significant problem.  If the parties to a hearing are not known why should any news publication find any human interest in the court hearings?

This is undoubtedly the case that was going on in Court 13, where two anonymous businessmen were pursuing the first “right to be forgotten” claims to be tried in England against Google.

Earlier, on February 15, journalists had to persuade the Appeal Court judge, Lord Justice Holroyde, that he did not have the power to prevent the identification of two convicted sex offenders appealing against their sentence. And on February 23, after a two year freedom of speech battle, the Times was able to identify a billionaire former judo partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin who had been involved in a legal dispute with his former wife over money.

But the struggle to win this right had meandered from High Court, Appeal Court to Supreme Court. The worry here is that journalists and news publishers cannot afford to be in every court that makes orders rendering justice secret.

Justice not seen and justice not heard will become justice blind and silent.