The Press Association has written to the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, expressing concern at a secret magistrates’ court hearing, arranged by the Crown Prosecution Service in the absence of the defendant and press, which imposed an order banning the reporting of any details of the case.
The Society of Editors also objected at a meeting with the Lord Chancellor’s department on Monday to the closed-court hearing and will discuss it with Lord Goldsmith early next month.
The hearing, on 5 September, the day before Christopher Branscombe appeared before magistrates at Haywards Heath – the court which earlier this year convicted two editors for breaching a Section 39 order – used the Contempt of Court Act to ban identification of Branscombe and publication of any details in the case. The CPS notified PA of the order by fax.
Branscombe was being charged in connection with documents missing from a solicitor’s office involved in the Sarah Payne murder case.
The national news agency, believing the hearing to have been illegal when proceedings had not begun, and annoyed at the way the order had been obtained without the press having an opportunity to challenge it, wrote to a court official for an explanation.
In her reply, Karin McNally, divisional legal manager for the Northern Area of Sussex Magistrates’ Courts, is understood to have said she had agreed the CPS application should be put before the court speedily because she knew the media was considering publication of the case that evening, before Branscombe’s first appearance.
By the time of another hearing on 20 September, again in a closed court, the BBC had briefed counsel to challenge the order and the court threw out the restrictions, except for those protecting the contents of the stolen documents. But there were two police officers outside the court and, when journalists were finally allowed in, guards asked them for identification.
Branscombe, who pleaded guilty to stealing the documents, was remanded on bail to Lewes Crown Court for sentencing. He was smuggled out of the court under a blanket so waiting photographers could not get a picture.
Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: "What was particularly disappointing about this court was that the magistrates didn’t appear to have read the court reporting restrictions document issued to all magistrates’ courts. We spent a lot of time with senior judges and magistrates’ representatives to try to avoid situations like this.
"They should only be putting on gagging orders when there is an absolute need to do it. They should respect the fact editors and journalists are quite aware of the rules and the importance of people having fair trials. In this case there clearly seems to have been a total contempt of the notion that justice should be done and seen in public."
By Jean Morgan