Will new guidelines improve court access for the media?

A practical new guide on media access to courts has been issued by the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) earlier this month.

The guide is an accessible first point of reference for court and tribunal staff who handle information requests from the media or arrange media access to trials. It has been developed by a working group involving media representatives and aims to foster a cooperative relationship between court staff and journalists.

The guide is divided into a general section and several annexures containing more detailed jurisdictional advice. It covers the handling of routine media enquiries as well as queries about high profile cases. The guide expressly recognises the fact that such requests are often made under the pressure of production deadlines and stresses the need for timely and relevant responses wherever possible.

One of the key issues dealt with is fair access to courtrooms and seating. The guide advises capping seating allocations by organisation and ensuring local media representation. For high profile trials and hearings, preparing for a sudden influx of media interest and having contingency plans for seating are recommended.

It is clarified that media representatives do not need to apply for permission to text, email or use social media in court. Court staff are also expressly instructed that they can disclose certain kinds of information without breaching data protection legislation.

Overall, the guide is a useful resource for court staff who are often faced with numerous information requests from the media at short notice.

Court services and media reporting are both becoming increasingly digitised and the data protection laws that came into effect in May 2018 have caused confusion over what information court staff can legally provide to journalists. In this regard, it is helpful that the guide clearly identifies specific kinds of information that can and cannot be given to the media. Matching media demand for seats is a particularly sensitive issue and concrete advice on this point in the guide will reduce tensions.

The guide forms part of a wider effort by HMCTS to promote the principle of open justice. This includes a roundtable discussion being chaired by Courts Minister Lucy Frazer next month which will bring together representatives from newspapers, broadcasters and online media platforms to discuss ways of enhancing court access.

The promotion of press freedom must always be balanced against the rights of litigants and accused persons to a fair trial. Critics might argue that more legal reporting increases the risk of prejudice to the jury in the context of a criminal trial, even in spite of rigorous laws against contempt of court.

It remains to be seen whether the recommendations in the guide will actually achieve better media access to the courts or if they will trigger a countervailing increase in applications for the conduct of private hearings (i.e. not open to the public) or for orders restricting disclosure of court documents or other information. This would not only detract from open justice but would increase both the administrative burden on courts and the costs of litigation.

Whatever the outcome, courts are now evidently more in the public eye than ever. Media coverage of legal proceedings carries huge reputation risks for the parties involved and getting professional reputation advice is essential to mitigate the risk of lasting damage.

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