Journalists’ Toolbox: Courts

Journalist Magazine
Jan/Feb 2005 issue
Report the Courts
By Heather Brooke

Journalists have tried-and-trusted ways of getting information, but every day new data goes online and even diligent reporters may be unaware of resources that would help their work immeasurable. In the first of a series of articles, the Journalists’ Toolbox, Heather Brooke lists internet sources for all the information you’ll need – this month reporting the UK courts and law.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs is the main source of information about the judicial system. A quick browse of the publication scheme will reveal information the DCA has committed to make public. The statistical publications page provides a wealth of information useful in court stories, such as statistics on waiting times at courts and user satisfaction surveys.

The DCA also holds information about Judges. In the US, reporters collect public databases of case decisions and analyse them by judge to track patterns of sentencing or reveal prejudice. This is all but impossible in the UK, but you can get basic information about judges such as a listing of judges by gender and ethnicity, available on the DCA website under ‘Judicial statistics’. These figures are useful when covering allegations of sexism or racism in the justice system. A list of all judges by name, when they were appointed and for what circuit is online at Judges’ salary scales are also available.

Information about the actual running of the courts is held by The Court Service; Southside, 105 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QT. Customer Service Tel: 020 7210 2266. The Scottish equivalent is the Scottish Court Service. Start by looking at the section ‘About us’ < ‘Our Performance’.

Reporters should be familiar with the annual reports of all the courts they cover. These are available for Supreme Court, Crown Court, Court of Appeal, High Court and County courts and contain a candid assessment from the judge in charge of each court and the resident manager. These could lead to stories if you find your courts have excessively high staff turnover, large waiting times, or antiquated facilities.

The daily case lists of the Supreme Court are accessed via the Court Service website, along with a list of Vexatious litigants, which may prove useful.

Challenge the Judges
The role of a journalist in court is to act as witness for the public, so you should always fight for your right to report what goes on in court. Ill-defined reporting restrictions are often put in place as an easy fix, and not, as they should be, a last resort.

Reporters should learn the guidelines produced by The Newspaper Society in conjunction with The Judicial Studies Board and the Society of Editors. You can download a free copy of the guidance for Crown and Magistrate’s courts online. If you have these regs to hand you’ll be in a good position to challenge unnecessary reporting restrictions.

Magistrates’ Courts
Magistrates’ Courts annual reports became publicly available for the first time in 2003 and these are excellent sources of data for local reporters, providing statistics on gender and ethnic makeup of magistrates, the outcome of cases, how long witnesses had to wait to give evidence and the cost-effectiveness of the courts. The reports are available on the DCA website under the section ‘Magistrates’. Inspection reports produced by HM Magistrates’ Courts Service Inspectorate provide another trove of data. A listing and contact details for the 42 Magistrates’ Courts Committees is found on the DCA website.

Legal professionals
To see if a solicitor can practice check the Solicitors Directory and then contact the Law Society to see if there are any conditions imposed on their practising certificate. The Bar Council regulates barristers and their disciplinary tribunal results will give you details, findings and sentences passed by the disciplinary tribunals and summary procedure panel. They’re available online by going to the complaints page and picking the appropriate heading from the drop-down menu. The page is updated regularly, but you should call the Bar Council’s records department on 020 7242 0934 for the exact practising status of a barrister.

Knowing the law
If your newsroom has LexisNexis then finding the law is easy. Those without access have several options:

  • Selected judgments from the High Court and Court of Appeal are available immediately from the Court Service website.
  • House of Lords Judgments are freely available from the parliamentary website.
  • British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII); Charles Clore House, 17 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DR. Tel: 020 7862 5806. This non-profit organisation provides free access to the most comprehensive set of British and Irish law available on the internet. BAILII is founded on the premise that all citizens have the fundamental right to free access to laws in a clear and comprehensive form.
  • The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales. The Weekly Law Reports provide free online summaries of the most important cases from the Lords, Privy Council, Court of Appeal and all divisions of the High Court. You need a subscription to access the official series of Law Reports and they do not come out until about nine months after the case.
  • Her Majesty’s Stationery Office is the main repository for parliamentary law. But be aware that amendments are not linked to the original law. Current bills moving through Parliament (which could become future laws) can be found on the Parliament website.
  • Halsbury’s Statutes of England and Wales is used by practising lawyers. The 52-volume set is available from law libraries. Supplements include amendments, making it the most useful source for determining where the law currently stands.

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