Lord Chief Justice: Court Reporting Maintains Public Confidence in Judicial System

Court reporting by news media helps maintain the integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in it, the Lord Chief Justice said today.

Speaking to Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray, as part of the Society’s Virtual Conference for 2020, Lord Burnett of Maldon said technological innovations for covering courts during the coronavirus pandemic had developed at a rapid pace over the last seven months.  

“I’m pretty confident that there will be developments but they need to be thought through really very carefully,” he added.

He said that remote hearings during the pandemic had led to more journalists being able to cover proceedings, but he added that “we will probably take one step back” on remote access, having taken “three steps forward” during the last seven months. 

Opening the discussion, the Lord Chief Justice said: “I am a keen supporter and enthusiast for open justice and I’ve long thought that the presence not only of the public but also of the press in court hearings, and not only high profile and controversial court hearings, is important for maintaining the integrity of the system and also public confidence in the system.”

He said that he wished that more local newspapers had the resources to cover the courts.

He said that livestreaming at the appellate level had been a “considerable success” and that he was a “great supporter” of the broadcasting of sentencing remarks in the criminal proceedings in Crown courts.  

He said he believed media reporting of court proceedings was generally “fair and balanced, objective.”

Asked for his views about the impact of social media on judicial proceedings, the Lord Chief Justice said that it was developing at pace and that regulators and law makers trying to keep up with it “presents real difficulties.”

Part of the answer was to “take less notice” of social media, adding: “That said, obviously, there is scope in social media very casually and quickly for people to do things which if they were writing them in newspapers would get them into very big trouble.

“An awful lot of it isn’t noticed, in other words the circulation of what’s said is very small, but there have been a number of quite well-known incidents where contempt proceedings have been brought against people who’ve used social media.

“Does it pose a threat? It’s possible, particularly in the context I think of high profile criminal cases, it’s at least possible that expansive adverse comment on social media might cause difficulties with the trial.” 

He added: “But we have to live with it, we all have to live with it, and I don’t see any easy solution to containing what’s on social media as long as we’re in an environment where those who provide the platforms are not themselves responsible for content.”

He acknowledged that this was a controversial area and that he was not expressing views on it.

He continued: “In the context of a court hearing, it is not uncommon for a request to be made by a journalist to be allowed to tweet from court and in some cases that can be extremely valuable because it’s providing instant commentary to the wider world on what’s going on.”

He added: “It is different with members of the public because they are not aware of what can be tweeted and what can’t, so the possibility – either deliberately or inadvertently – of an ordinary person in the public gallery, or more likely someone who has an interest in the case tweeting or sending out information that could compromise the fairness of the proceedings is something we have to bear in mind.”