The Evening Standard’s court correspondent has warned that “dwindling numbers” of journalists are reporting from courts in the UK, with only two courts in London getting “proper coverage”.
Tristan Kirk said the Old Bailey and Southwark Crown Court were the only courts well-tended by journalists in the capital.
He said he counted six crown courts around London that received “no coverage whatsoever” from journalists or are attended “very sporadically”, adding: “That’s simply not good enough.”
Kirk, who worked for court news agency Central prior to joining the Standard, said the industry needed to face the fact that there are less journalists going to court and find out why that is.
“Editors need to have faith in the courts as a source of news,” he told the Society of Editors’ Conference in Manchester on Monday as part of a panel on court coverage.
“It’s an easy story in my view – no need for a door knock. It’s all laid out in front of you… but there are fewer and fewer people going down to cover those stories.”
Kirk said the Government “needs to lift the veil on what’s going on in the justice system” and “stop the opaque nature of the information they make public”.
He said court lists were taken away from journalists “day in and day out” and information at crown courts could be “sketchy” at best, with details of charges often withheld.
Said Kirk: “I think we need to put some serious pressure on the Ministry of Justice and court services to reform that system of information, because that’s the stuff that will appeal to editors and court reporters and get them to attend the court.”
Press Gazette reported last month that HM Courts and Tribunals Service was forced to remind courts to allow journalists to obtain court listings after attempts to withhold details by wrongly applying new data protection laws at two magistrates’ courts.
Kirk said he had once sat in a court hearing where everyone except the defendant was appearing by video link, meaning he had no-one to ask when the charges in the case were not made clear.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service, working with the MoJ, has begun a £1bn programme of reform of the UK courts system which “aims to bring new technology and modern ways of working”.
But Kirk said no meaningful reform could take place without consulting the media. “We aren’t an optional extra, we are a vital part of the system,” he said.
“We need to put pressure on the MoJ to include us and make us an integral part of the court service and that will in turn lead to more people going down to the courts.”
He added: “You’re not properly administering justice if there’s no one there to see it.
Also on the panel, ITN head of compliance John Battle said it was time for the legal profession “to recognise the benefits that the public get from openness”, adding: “It’s time to get on with it.”
Fellow speaker Joy Yates, editorial director at Johnston Press North East, told the conference that court content was a local newspaper’s “USP” (unique selling point) and rejected suggestions of using a pool reporter to cover courts.
“I love court content,” she said. “It’s vital for justice and to instil public confidence. For me it ticks absolutely every box.
“It’s something I always keep at the forefront of everything I do. It’s not cheap to cover courts. We have a model in the North East where we use a local news agency to cover crown court.”
Picture: Society of Editors