'Prosecutors in need of open justice lessons'

Greenwood: cited guidelines

Prosecution lawyers need to be trained in the common law principle of open justice and in freedom of expression if reporting of magistrates’ courts is not to be needlessly curbed, according to Walter Greenwood, joint editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.

He told the NCTJ’s annual legal update for editors in London that in some courts Crown Prosecution Services lawyers were taking it upon themselves to apply for reporting restrictions in circumstances not justifying it. Weak magistrates granted their applications. Neither appeared to have read, or even heard of, the Judicial Studies Board’s guidelines on reporting restrictions in magistrates courts, issued this year under the auspices of Lord Justice Judge, senior presiding judge in England and Wales.

Nor did they seem aware of Article 10 (right to impart information) in the European Convention on Human Rights. The CPS needed similar guidelines.

"One can understand their concern for a successful prosecution but some CPS lawyers have become obsessive in wishing to prevent the risk of publicity prejudicing their case when that risk could, at best, be described as extremely remote" Greenwood said.

"We now have reporting restriction guidelines for both judges and for magistrates. The CPS should issue its own guidelines for its lawyers".

He cited cases in Norwich and Haywards Heath in which CPS lawyers had acted against the guidelines. A CPS lawyer at Norwich was not only unaware of the guidelines when a court reporter drew attention to them, but tried to dismiss them as some unimportant paper that was probably five years out of date, instead of recognising the guidelines for the authoritative document it was.

At Haywards Heath, a solicitor’s clerk was charged with the theft of papers from his employers relating to Roy Whiting, the man on trial for the abduction and murder of the child Sarah Payne. The CPS applied for and obtained a ban under the Contempt of Court Act on naming the clerk and other curbs on reporting, already restricted under the Magistrates’ Courts Act.

"How could the naming of the clerk affect the trial of Whiting? It had no relation to his guilt or innocence," he said. The order was eventually varied on the application of the BBC to one under section 4 postponing any reporting of the contents of the documents which the clerk was alleged to have stolen.

 

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