Government agency intervenes after reporter barred from taking notes in magistrates' court

A magistrates' court was criticised this morning for barring a reporter from taking notes in his first week.

Michael Cox, who started at the Yellow Advertiser on Monday, was not given journalistic access to the court for nearly an hour this morning.

He was not allowed into the press area of the court and was told he could not take notes from the public gallery.

After arriving at the court at around 9.50am, the court only allowed him full access at around 10.45am – after an intervention from HM Courts and Tribunals Service, an executive agency sponsored by the Ministry of Justice.

An HMCTS press officer contacted the court after being called by Advertiser news editor Steve Neale. 

Neale said he had tried to contact the court yesterday and sent Cox in with a note explaining that, despite not having press ID in his first week, Cox was working for the Advertiser.

The news editor told Press Gazette that, after Cox was denied journalistic access this morning, he called the court only to be told this was the "policy of the court".

The press officer who said the court should allow Cox access told Press Gazette it was a "genuine mistake" that was corrected after it was sent a copy of the HMCTS media guidance package.

This document has previously been obtained by Press Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act.

The court was directed to page 22, "Note taking in the public gallery of criminal courts".

It says: "It is accepted that justice is administered in open court where anyone present may listen to and report what is said. There can be no objection to note taking in the public gallery unless it is for an improper purpose; for example, to brief a witness who is not in court on what has already happened. This may occur where witnesses who have yet to give evidence are usually kept out of court and in civil cases in which the judge has directed that a future witness should be out of court while other evidence is given, or the hearing is in chambers.

"Court staff need to be alert, but it is not for them to prohibit the practice. Courts should not place notices in the court building forbidding note taking. If any member of the court staff sees a member of the public taking notes and there is some reason to suspect it might be for an improper purpose, he or she should report the matter to the clerk of the court (or to the judge, if the clerk is temporarily absent) and ask for directions. The clerk should, if possible, make enquiries of the member of the public concerned or direct an usher to do so. If the result of the enquiry does not allay suspicion, the matter must then be reported to the judge.
 
"It is the responsibility of the clerk to ensure that enquiries are made politely, and without implying that the member of the public is necessarily doing anything wrong."

Neale told Press Gazette this morning: “The magistrates’ courts and the crown courts are becoming increasingly difficult to cover for a variety of reasons.

“We’ve not come across this particular problem before where a reporter’s been stopped for taking notes.

“But we have had incidents of reporters being refused access to the courts because they’ve not got ID, which is of course irrelevant because a court is public.”

He added: “Only ten years ago the courts were full of reporters. They’re not any more. And what’s happened is, in that absence of any coverage of the court, the court administrators, the clerks, the court managers and the various other officers of the court are just not aware that the courts should be open and that open justice is a part of the system.”

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