Tag Archives: court reporting

Case Preview: PNM v Times Newspapers, Open justice and the privacy of suspects – Hugh Tomlinson QC

In this guest post, Hugh Tomlinson QC previews an appeal to the Supreme Court in a case that considers where the balance lies between rights to privacy and the principle of open justice. The post was first published on the Inforrm blog

On 17 and 18 January 2017, a seven judge Supreme Court will hear the claimant’s appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of PNM v Times Newspapers ([2014] EWCA Civ 1132).

That Court had upheld the judge’s view that, on the basis of the “open justice principle”, information mentioned in open court concerning a person who was arrested but not charged could be reported.  

Background

The claimant was one of a number of men arrested in March 2012 in connection with a Thames Valley Police investigation into allegations of child sex grooming and prostitution.  The claimant was released on bail and was subsequently notified that he was to be released without charge.

Nine men were charged and a criminal trial took place at the Central Criminal Court between January and May 2013.  The claimant was not a party or witness at the criminal trial.  On 25 January 2013 order under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 was made prohibiting publication of any report which referred to evidence which may identify or tend to identify him.

On 14 May 2013, seven of the defendants were convicted of numerous serious sexual offences.  A further order under section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 was made on the claimant’s application.  It prohibited disclosure of details of applications made to the Court by Thames Valley Police (which concerned certain of the claimant’s property).

The claimant’s full name was mentioned in open court when a police officer said that a witness had failed to pick him out on an identification parade.  He was also mentioned in the course of cross-examination, in speeches and in the summing up.

At the conclusion of the criminal trial the Judge declined to discharge the section 4(2) order until the decision was made as to whether the claimant would be charged.  In July 2013 the police notified the claimant that he was not going to be charged.   The Times and the Oxford Mail applied to discharge the section 4(2) but, before he had handed down his ruling, the claimant applied to the High Court for an injunction.

By an application made on 15 October 2013 against the Times, the Oxford Mail and two journalists, the claimant sought an order to prevent publication of the fact of his arrest on suspicion of committing serious sexual offences against children and associated information because of the fear of the damage such publications may cause to him and his family, including his children.

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Access to information should not be an after-thought in plans for ‘transforming our justice system’

In this post, Sussex University lecturer Judith Townend argues that access to information should be at the heart of plans to reform the justice system. She summarises the key points from her submission to the Ministry of Justice in response to the consultation on the proposed reforms. The post first appeared on the Transparency Project website. 

Transforming justice - access to justiceOn 15th September 2016 the Ministry of Justice opened its consultation into “Transforming Our Justice System”. The 36 page document, accompanied by a statement by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, sets out a “vision” for a radical overhaul and major financial investment in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The plans for reform include more use of case officers for routine tasks, more decisions made “on the papers” (where a judge can consider representations without a physical hearing), more virtual hearings, and more cases resolved out of court.

The consultation document concentrated on some specific areas of reform including its “assisted digital” strategy (to help users access services), and online conviction and statutory fixed fine plans. The latter would allow for certain routine, low-level summary, non-imprisonable offences with no identifiable victim to be resolved entirely online, whereby a defendant would enter their plea to an online system. If that’s a guilty plea they would be able to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine.

Responses were sought on online convictions and the “assisted digital” strategy by 10th November (extended after an administrative error). It is likely that many of the responses will focus on the access to justice issues and the risks of an online plea system; research by the charity Transform Justice, for example, indicates that “many unrepresented defendants do not understand whether they are guilty or innocent in legal terms – whether they have a valid defence – and certainly don’t understand the full implications of each option”.

However, there’s another major issue which is overlooked in the consultation, that of access to courts and tribunals by members of the public who are not necessarily directly involved with proceedings — this includes members of the media, NGOs and universities, but also ordinary people who wish to observe proceedings and access the information to which they are legitimately entitled.

Although the consultation document contains a pledge that the judiciary and government will “continue to ensure open justice”, access to proceedings and materials is not explored in any detail in relation to the specific reforms outlines on online convictions and “assisted digital”. It states the “principle of open justice will be upheld and the public will still be able to see and hear real-time hearings, whilst we continue to protect the privacy of the vulnerable” (p.5). This sentence points to a very important tension in complex digital environments, and one that needs overt recognition and detailed consideration when designing new access systems for online court procedures in both civil and criminal contexts.

There is mention of “transparency” in the joint statement (p.10) but only in relation to general data about proceedings (i.e. statistics) rather than with regard to access to proceedings. The Impact Assessment on Online Convictions mentions that “Listings and results would be published” (p.5, para 23) with no indication of whether this means to the open web (indefinitely?), or in a physical courtroom. If they intend to publish the full listings for all these summary only non-imprisonable offences to the open web, it is very important that the judiciary and MoJ consider the legal and societal implication of this — it is not something that has previously been done so systematically by the court.

Given that many major criminal convictions are unreported by the media owing to a lack of resource or interest, we could end up in a strange situation where there is greater access via online search for far less serious offences and this must be considered in the context of issues such as equal opportunities and potential barriers to work, as well as open justice and transparency. The MoJ, HMCTS and Judiciary should investigate a range of technological options for sharing data from courts and tribunals and should open these proposals to scrutiny through stakeholder research and official consultation.

In the annual University of Sussex Draper Lecture 2016 in London this week (8 November), Lord Justice Fulford* said that one option being considered was to provide viewing centres in public buildings, but these were early days and they were still looking for imaginative solutions. It would seem perverse, given the overall agenda of the reforms, for the courts not to consider digital access options that do not require physical travel to court.  

On behalf of the Transparency Project I have written a submission to the consultation, raising our overall concern about the lack of attention given to open justice and access to information in these initial documents. Our submission urges the Ministry of Justice and Judiciary to provide more detail on their specific plans for physical and digital access to virtual proceedings and to open these plans to further consultation. Too often, public access to courts information is an afterthought, which leads to mistakes such as the inadvertent release of sensitive and confidential data, or insufficient information and access being made available.

*Unfortunately I was unable to attend the lecture but it was reported by TP member Paul Magrath here and the Law Society Gazette here.

Judith Townend is a lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex and a member of the Transparency Project Core Group. She is the former Director of the Information Law and Policy Centre. 

Photo: Steph GrayCC BY-SA 2.0

Needles on top of haystacks and reporting the courts in a digital age

An update on developments in digital court reporting by the Information Law and Policy Centre’s Judith Townend

How should courts be reported in the digital age? It’s a question that’s been preoccupying me for a number of years. My understanding of the technology, law and potential reforms are constantly challenged as I encounter new examples and people with varying experiences in different areas of legal work. For example, Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice has drawn my attention to important work on the rights of children involved in judicial processes.

This week I’ve been looking at the ruling in BBC & Eight Other Media Organisations, R (on the application of) v F & D [2016] EWCA Crim 12 (11 February 2016), published following the conviction and sentencing of two 15 year old defendants for the murder of Angela Wrightson in December 2014.

In an unusual order issued by the Court of Appeal, the media was prohibited, until the verdicts in the criminal trial or further order, from placing reports on Facebook profile pages, and was instructed to disable the comment facilities on any report of the criminal trial. This was to prevent the media giving prominence to public comments on their Facebook pages – which the trial judge Globe J described as placing ‘a lot of needles’ on top of a haystack – and risk prejudicing proceedings.

In a piece for the Justice Gap (re-published on the Transparency Project) discussing the case I argue that our contemporary systems for judicial information control are lacking and muddled with serious consequences for freedom of expression, which affects both the public and media right to impart information, and the right to receive information.

I made a similar point in a paper co-authored with Dr Henry Irving for History and Policy, looking at the Incedal terrorism-related trials in 2014 and 15.

We need more guidance and clarity on how open courts should look, given the reality of digital and hybrid media of the 21st century. This will help us design fairer and more practical systems that give appropriate weight to and recognition of important rights: not only freedom of expression and open justice, but also those relating to the welfare of children, private and family life and the rehabilitation of offenders.

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