Court stories blocked by new secrecy rules

By Dominic Ponsford

Hundreds of court cases involving fraud, medical negligence and
other alleged injustices may never reach the press following a legal
rule change that took effect this month.

This is the verdict of freelance journalist Sarah Limbrick, who has
been dramatically affected by the new rules, introduced from 1 October.

For
17 years Limbrick has made her living by reporting information attached
to claim forms filed in the High Court. But the rules now state that
journalists can view claim forms, but not any documents attached to
them.

According to the Civil Procedure Rule Committee of the High
Court, which made the rule change, it is simply a “clarification” of
existing rules and journalists can still apply to courts to obtain
documents attached to claim forms.

But according to Limbrick,
such documents are now impossible to see. She said this week she had
picked up a dozen claim forms in the High Court and found that court
officials had interpreted the new rules to mean that none of the
documents attached could be viewed. The actual claim forms which
journalists can still see were often of little use, Limbrick said, and
may only give the names of who is suing whom and no other information.

“Frauds at publicly listed companies, medical negligence, every sort of story is heard at the High Court,” she said.

“There
will be cases where it is crucial that the public should know what is
going on and we are not going to get the details of them.”

Stories
that Limbrick has uncovered in the past by seeing documents attached to
claim forms include an armed robber who was granted legal aid after
being shot by the police. After press coverage his legal aid was
revoked.

She has also uncovered cases involving hospital patients
who claimed to have contracted CJD following brainsurgery, and last
year’s award-winning story about James Middleweek, who sued stockbroker
Collins Stewart for unfair dismissal.

Limbrick added: “I am hoping that newspapers will seek judicial review. I have been told that I could appeal it, but I can’t afford a QC.

“I
hope newspapers will recognise that this is an important curtailment of
our freedoms and that we don’t want to lose any more stories.”

Associated
Newspapers, News International and Trinity Mirror are currently
considering what action to take, and are represented by law firm
Reynolds Porter Chamberlain.

RPC lawyer Keith Mathieson said: “We
will probably write to the Civil Rule Committee and make them aware
that this is a rule change not just a clarification as they have said.

There’s
never been that much information available at the High Court and this
change means there is practically nothing apart from what is said in
open court. But most cases don’t come to court.”

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