Planned magistrates court reforms could 'diminish the media's ability to report'

Proposals to streamline procedures in magistrates' courts by ending the requirement that details of written statements and written guilty pleas should be given in public will damage the principle of open justice, the Newspaper Society has warned.

The changes have been put forward in the Government's Draft Deregulation Bill, which is intended to introduce a raft of reforms aimed at cutting red tape and unnecessary regulations.

But the Newspaper Society, which represents some 1,200 or so local and regional newspapers across the UK, says that the effect of the proposals relating to magistrates' courts would be to place further restrictions on reporting, and make it more difficult for local newspapers, in particular, to inform their communities of what is happening in the courts.

Clause 36 of the Draft Bill would end the requirement contained in section 9 (6) of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 that written statements given in criminal proceedings should be read aloud in court, and that the court clerk should give an oral account of those parts of such statements which are not read aloud.

Clause 37 would amend section 12 of the Magistrates Court Act 1980 so that the Criminal Procedure Rules could dispense with the Act's statutory requirements that certain statements must be read aloud in court before the court may accept a guilty plea from a defendant who is not at court.

"Local newspapers continue to attend and report the work of the local criminal courts to their local communities," the Newspaper Society said in a written submission to the Government on the proposals.

"Draft clauses 36 and 37 would remove open justice safeguards which assist public scrutiny and understanding of the courts, since the current Acts enable the substance of the case or evidence which forms part of it to be heard in open court, so that the proceedings can be properly understood and subject to public oversight.

"These provisions would also diminish the media's ability to report the pertinent evidence if it no longer has to be read out in open court and thereby impeded the dissemination of contemporaneous fair and accurate reports of court proceedings, with statutory defences against claims of defamation and contempt.

"The removal of existing statutory rights would also lead to a corresponding reduction in statutory rights of public inspection and media inspection of court documentation, with or without the leave of the court, which assist accurate reporting".

Minimum statutory requirements for material to be read out in open court would be lost, the society claimed.

"There might not be the same degree of public consultation, discussion and detailed Parliamentary scrutiny over rules, as at present might be possible in respect of amendment of primary legislation to effect changes, if further changes to reduce rather than expand open justice requirements, by way of the rules, were suggested." it added in its submission.

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