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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Scottish courts to deny journalists access to information


RELEASE DATE: 3 September 2014

The Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) has criticised a decision by courts in Scotland to withhold details from journalists before cases start.

The Institute claims the ruling goes against long-standing principles of open justice.

The Scottish Lord Justice General, Brian Gill, announced the decision in a circular to journalists last month.

In the past, journalists in Scotland have been able to see complaints and indictments for note-taking purposes before cases begin in court.

But Lord Gill reviewed the arrangements because of ‘significant concerns’ about revealing sensitive and personal data under the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998.

He said: ‘The current practice gives journalists an opportunity to attend and report on noteworthy cases. But it is now clear that the information being disclosed is excessive for this purpose.’

The decision means journalists will be unable to report the charges faced by an accused person, often at indictment level, before they reach court. Cases may be missed entirely if they call in court with no prior notice.

CIoJ Scottish representative, Campbell Thomas, said: “It’s absurd that journalists are being prevented from seeing information that is going to be made freely available in court anyway.

“It has already been established under the DPA that in current cases, the clerk will normally release information to the media if it’s been given in open court, unless there are any unfair implications for an individual.

“Up to now, the unfairness test has only been used when deciding whether to release information on cases after they had finished some time ago.’

Thomas added: ‘Lord Gill’s ruling goes against the century-old common law rule of open justice, where justice must be seen to be done. It will hinder journalists’ ability to cover court cases thoroughly and accurately on behalf of the public.

“We also do not believe it is acceptable for Lord Gill to mention the risks of the media breaching the Contempt of Court Act. This will create a chilling effect.

“It is up to editors to decide which pre-trial details to publish, and accept the consequences if they get it wrong. It is wrong of Lord Gill to introduce the hint of prior restraint.

“The decision sets a dangerous precedent in a democratic society.”

The CIoJ also believes that the decision goes against the spirit of transparency and accessibility for reporting set out in the 2012 Court of Appeal ruling involving the Guardian and Westminster Magistrates Court.

The court decided that journalists covering court hearings should be able to see case material to aid that coverage.

But the ruling does not apply to Scotland.



Notes for Editors:

Formed in 1884, the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) is the world’s oldest established professional body for journalists, and a representative voice of media and communications professionals throughout the UK and the Commonwealth.