Editor's column: Unhelpful courts limit open justice
PUBLISHED: 14:50 17 July 2019 | UPDATED: 15:13 17 July 2019
The justice system is shrinking away from press scrutiny as the years go by.
I don't mean anyone is deliberately keeping us at arm's length - but whether it's down to cuts that mean court staff are swamped, or a failure to train them about their responsibilities to help the press, it can be really hard for us to access the information we need to report on cases.
Despite repeatedly calling the Old Bailey - and, later, going there in person - we couldn't get anyone to tell us why the trial of Finsbury Park murderer Kasim Lewis had been scaled down into a "for mention" court appearance.
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There can be a large number of "for mention" hearings in the course of a case, most of which will be of little public interest (say, to arrange delivery of a document, or to formally notify the court of some housekeeping matter), and some of which we won't be legally allowed to report at all.
No one could tell us what the "for mention" hearing on Monday afternoon would involve, though we did manage to secure the help of a barrister to decipher a particularly obscure acronym on the court listing. Since no newspaper has the resources to spend a week sitting in court on spec, we called it a day. Hours later, with a greatly diminished journalistic presence in court, Kasim Lewis pleaded guilty to a second brutal, sexually motivated murder in north London - the second time in just over a year he has dodged press attention and racked up significant costs to the court system by changing his plea to guilty at the very last minute.
As resources diminish, it's clear that keeping court staff informed about hearings, and aware of their duties to the press - and, by extension, keeping the press and public informed - isn't considered a priority. It's the reason the Met's central press office took two weeks to answer our questions about the Archway hit-and-run that left a 12-year-old girl in hospital; it's the reason Islington Police hasn't answered a single one of our questions on Twitter since 2018; it's the reason we have to fight to be given basic documents every time we attend an inquest.
The press is supposed to be the public's eyes and ears, but if we're filibustered out of court we have little choice but to rely on press releases from the authorities we're meant to be scrutinising. There are worse casualties of austerity, but all cuts have consequences.