Media law: April a big month for journalists' court access

An online reporting restrictions database is due to launch by April – the same month journalists will be allowed to cover family courts for the first time – Press Gazette can reveal.

Journalists have called for a reporting restrictions database for a number of years.At present, judges and magistrates are not obliged to remind reporters of restrictions once they have been made.

This has caused a number of newspapers to be fined, under strict liability, for breaching restrictions they did not know existed.

But, by April, a secure online system that allows reporters to check crown court restrictions should be up and running.

The database will include magistrates’ court restrictions later in the year.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, told Press Gazette: “A system whereby the media will have access to court reporting restrictions in crown court will hopefully be in place by April.

“It’s been a long time coming. I don’t think anyone has resisted the idea in principle, it’s just been a matter of updating the courts’ computer system.”

Satchwell said the idea had come “to the top of the agenda” when Paul Horrocks, editor of the Manchester Evening News, was Society of Editors president two years ago.

But Satchwell warned the database would be “an aid, not a panacea”.

“What people must remember is they mustn’t lower their guard on this,” he said.

“It’s still every newspaper’s responsibility, and every news agency’s responsibility, to check. This won’t absolve them of that, it will just be an aid.”

Meanwhile, justice secretary Jack Straw confirmed to the Press Gazette media law conference yesterday that journalists should be allowed to cover family courts by April.

He congratulated The Times for campaigning in favour of opening up the family courts, and said: “Subject to some restrictions, the press should be allowed to attend and witness what happens in family proceedings this April.”

Straw first announced the change in December. Unlike the database, opening up family courts could require new legislation – so the April start date is not guaranteed.

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