The name Mike Taylor is not one that many lawyers will recognise, even though he has spent his entire working life writing about the law.
In an extraordinary 42 years at the Press Association law courts news service, he reported countless cases in the High Court, Court of Appeal and House of Lords with speed and clarity. His reward was to see his words used by every news organisation in the country — though almost invariably under someone else’s byline.
Taylor hit the age of 65 on Sunday and retired immediately. So far he has not been replaced. There used to be 25 reporters covering the law courts for Britain’s national news agency. Now, only four are left.
That would matter less if newspapers still kept their own reporters at the law courts. But those days have gone, and not just because of the recession. Editors take the view that their readers no longer need to understand why the courts have reached a particular decision.
It was against this background that the lord chief justice expressed concern last week about the decline in coverage of the courts, with local papers in particular no longer sending reporters to hearings. ‘If there is no one to walk in, the public interest is damaged. That is the harsh reality.’
Experience of local government reporting was also being lost, Lord Judge said in a speech to the Society of Editors. There was evidence that some weeklies were relying too much on council press offices and not enough on independent, objective reporting.
‘Just as an independent press can expose the errors made by local authorities and governments, so too, the administration of justice in the courts should be open to the public scrutiny which an independent press provides,’ Lord Judge told journalists. ‘Unless the right has been expressly taken away, your right to be in court is no different to and no less than the right of the lawyers, the advocates, even the judge himself or herself. You are not performing the same function as the judge, but you have a valued function to perform.’
Lord Judge’s comments were welcomed by Jack Straw when the lord chancellor launched a bill intended to allow reporters greater access to the family courts.
‘We want to create a system that is transparent, accountable, and inspires public confidence in its good work, while still protecting the privacy of children and families involved,’ Straw said.
Although ‘accredited media representatives’ have been permitted to attend family courts since April, they are not allowed to report the substance of those proceedings without express permission from the court. Incidentally, bloggers and other freelance commentators are unlikely to qualify as accredited media representatives.
Straw initially wanted new rules of court that would have allowed accredited reporters not only to cover hearings but also to inspect and report documents filed at court.
Parties would have been permitted to disclose information about their cases to accredited media representatives who would then have been able to report this information — even if they had not been in court — unless a judge had ordered otherwise. There were plans for medical reports to be supplied in redacted form.
But Straw was forced to water down his proposals in the summer after strong opposition from family judges. They feared that publication of medical reports could harm the children involved as well as discouraging experts from speaking frankly. Judges were also concerned that allowing journalists to interview parties would lead to self-serving accounts and do little to increase public understanding of the courts. They even suggested that Straw’s rules were unlawful.
So instead of new, more open, rules that could have been in force by Christmas, we are to have much narrower primary legislation that cannot take effect before next spring at the earliest.
The Children, Schools and Families Bill starts from the default position that it will be contempt of court to report family proceedings, apart from those that are open to the public. It then provides an exception for ‘authorised news publication’. But this is very narrowly defined.
First, the information must have been obtained by the accredited media representative by observing or listening to proceedings that he or she was permitted to attend. Gone is the option of asking the lawyers to fill you in if you missed something. You can’t even ask another reporter.
Second, the information must initially be published either by the representative or by someone the representative works for. So law firms will not be able to publish their own accounts of their own cases.
Next, it must not be ‘identification information’ or ‘sensitive personal information’ or ‘restricted adoption information’ or ‘restricted parental order information’. Some of these restrictions may be lifted by the court, but only if this would be in the public interest or the interests of a party. Specific permission will be needed to report court judgments, and the court can still restrict publication of any information at the request of an interested person.
The legislation may be reviewed after 18 months. But, in a final twist, it will reverse the burden of proof. If publishers want to avoid going to prison for contempt of court, it will be up to them to prove they ‘did not know and had no reason to suspect’ that the information they published was covered by these restrictions.
There must be an overwhelming temptation to write about The X Factor instead. Only a child could imagine that the family courts will deliver a renaissance in court reporting.