Magistrates’ courts have changed over the past few decades. Where have all the journalists gone?

Like my old primary school, it was smaller than I remembered, and less fearsome. But it was the look of surprise on the friendly usher’s face when I asked for the press bench that first alerted me to how much magistrates’ courts have changed since I used to report their daily caseloads for local newspapers.

Back in the 1970s reporters attended every case that came before the magistrates, however trivial. A day’s listing that included two not-guilty pleas would certainly have attracted a packed press bench. Nowadays, the usher told me, unless it’s a committal hearing giving the first glance of a murder suspect, the magistrates’ court operates in a press vacuum. 

I wasn’t in Brighton Magistrates’ Court for a murder, just a case which I thought might test certain limits of freedom of expression. That’s about all I can write at this stage because the trial never got going. But it was an enlightening day, nonetheless.

The first case listed set the tone of the day. The defendant, accused of assault and damage to a pub toilet and window, turned up without representation, saying that owing to a change in circumstances he could no longer afford a solicitor and had only just got around to applying for legal aid. The prosecution was ready to go - three witnesses had apparently turned up - but the magistrates decided to adjourn and the defendant was given firm notice to get his legal aid sorted.

My memory may be faulty, but I don’t recall benches being so lenient in the 1970s.

On to the main event. Briefly, Paul Garland, a retired solicitor and Harry Salaman, a non-practising barrister, deny charges under Section 2 of the Protection of Harassment Act 1997 in relation to material they circulated about a former police officer. The case had been listed for Friday and part of Monday and the defendants were due to conduct their own cases. However the court was told that a witness in the case had obtained an order under section 36 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act preventing their cross-examination by the accused.

The appointed representatives, solicitor-advocates Kirsty Craghill and Teresa Mulrooney of criminal defence firm Tuckers, told the court that they had heard of the case only at 4.30pm the previous afternoon and requested an adjournment. Even though all parties agreed, dealing with that question and the admissibility of certain facts about a witness and a defendant took the court well into lunchtime. 

It is pleasing to report that the chair of the bench thanked Craghill and Mulrooney for going beyond their brief on behalf of the court and (prospective) clients. The case was adjourned until April.

All in all, while the day’s proceedings appeared to me scrupulously fairly conducted, they were not a great advertisement for the criminal justice system at the sharp edge. I suspect Sir Brian Leveson’s imminent Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings will have some suggestions that might have prevented one or both of the adjournments.

For the moment, all I can say is, my day in the mags would have been even more frustrating for all parties had a few solicitors not been present.

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor