The Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney General have been called on to exercise more ‘discipline’over judges who impose unnecessary and unlawful reporting restrictions.
The Press Association’s legal editor, Mike Dodd, has condemned Judge John Holt’s decision to ban the reporting of a court case at Ipswich Crown Court, in which a man pleaded guilty to causing the death of five people by dangerous driving.
The reporting ban was made in open court at the end of a hearing on 1 June to allow the Crown Prosecution Service time to inform the victims’ families that the defendant had changed his plea to guilty before reports appeared in the press.
The East Anglian Daily Times challenged the order, made under Section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, but in an emailed response Judge Holt said: ‘My Order stands until the families have been contacted personally by the CPS.
‘Furthermore I would expect any sensitive editor to respect the victims’ relatives and not publishâ€¦even without an order.”
Dodd said that Judge Holt was ‘a judge and not an editor’and called it ‘nonsense’that editors should not report what is said in open court.
‘You can understand the judge’s wishes to think about the victims’ families but the fact is this case happened in open court and there were journalists present,’said Dodd. ‘The only way you can ban it from being reported is if it was withheld from the public.
‘What happens if the CPS says one of the victims’ relatives has gone on holiday in the Amazon Basin, hasn’t got a mobile phone and is not contactable? It should have been reported immediately.”
The office of the Lord Chief Justice confirmed it had received Dodd’s letter, which demands that judges be reminded of their responsibilities and parameters of their remits and assurances that such orders would not be used to restrict reporting of similar cases.
The Attorney General said it had also received the letter and would respond within 21 days.
East Anglian Daily Times editor Terry Hunt and Ipswich Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover, who have both signed Dodd’s letter, have also written to their local presiding judge asking for a face-to-face meeting.
Hunt added: ‘In my view it is not part of the legal process or the court’s responsibility to ensure that it is told first. It is the police and the police liaison officers whose responsibility that is.
‘My real concern is that this could be applied to almost every single court case that you can think of, because in every case there is a victim and in every case there’s a victim’s family. How far does it extend? It worries me that it sets such a precedent.”
The CPS is investigating whether the prosecutionshould have asked the court to make the order.