Every trainee journalist has the principles of covering magistrates courts drummed into them from early point in their career.
And when the issue of hyperlocal websites v traditional media raises its head, one of the issues which regularly comes up is “But will these hyperlocal sites cover courts?”
The answer, at the moment, is that in the main they don’t. I’ve asked a few people why this is and the two main answers were:
We run these sites in our spare time and courts sit during the day
We’re worried if we did, we’d break the law
I suspect getting round the first issue will be harder than getting round the second issue. Yet ensuring the courts are seen to be serving justice is one of the most important parts of local journalism.
As with most things in journalism, covering magistrates court isn’t rocket science. A copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists will stand you in good stead – mug up on that and you’re pretty much ready to go.
Basic details of the issues involved can be found here - but once you’ve got the rules nailed down, and know that you must have a note of everything you hear in court which you then print, what else is there to know?
With the help of people on Twitter, I’ve compiled the 10 alternative rules for covering magistrates courts – the things anyone, hyperlocal journalist or rookie reporter should find helpful in the quest to get the most out of court:
1. Ring in advance.
Every magistrates court has a listings department. Don’t be afraid to ring it in advance if you know the names involved in the case you want to cover. Even if the next court date was set when you were last in court to witness the case, it’s always worth checking in advance again because it can often slip. Court numbers can be found here
Let the local beat police officer/press officer know that you’re covering court.
Government-set police targets come and go, but they always contain something around the force having to prove that local people feel justice is being done. A smart police officer or press officer knows that this can be achieved by getting coverage of court cases. If they tip you off about a case, at least you can decide in advance if it’s worth going.
2. Be prepared to wait around.
As vital as the court process is, it can feel incredibly inefficent.
3. Don’t expect it all to do be done and dusted in one hearing.
Even the most simple cases can last over several hearings, especially if someone pleads not guilty.
4. Know who the real power in the courtroom is – the clerk.
Magistrates may make the final decision on what happens in their courtroom, but they’re guided by the court clerk, who is expected to know the law and how it should be applied.
5. Be very, very careful in youth court.
You hear great stories in youth court, but it’s very, very hard to report them. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever go to them – but don’t expect to get much out of it. For example, I covered a case of a teenager who had set fire to a school. We couldn’t name him (obviously), but we also couldn’t give the teen’s age, his address, or whether the teen attended the school in question – because our lawyers took the call that any one of those facts could have identified the teen involved. The Press have a right to be there - but the public in general don’t, which raises questions around how the legal system treats a hyperlocal news site.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask the clerk for clarification – but know when to ask
If there’s something you’re not sure about, such as a reporting restriction, don’t be afraid to ask the court clerk – but not while the court is in session. Wait until the court recesses.
7. Get to know the solicitors in the parish
Journalists like seeing their name in lights, and so do solicitors. It’s obviously good for business – so make sure you mention them where possible. They’ll soon be seeking you out to flag up the cases they’re involved in.
They will know the faces which make the stories in a court. Court clerks will often work around different courts in a district, and the magistrates won’t sit every day. But the ushers are there, day in, and day out, and if you make a point of being friendly with the ushers, they’ll point you in the right direction of the names to look out for on a court list.
8. If you want a picture – know the rules.
Photography is banned in court buildings. Some courts don’t even allow photgraphers to have their equipment in the building, even if they promise not to use it (pubs opposite the Royal Courts of Justice and Old Bailey in London offer to keep them behind the bar for a fee it’s that much of a problem).
So that means if you want your own picture, you have to take it outside. The priority here is to be safe. If you’re covering a court regularly, it pays to scout out the discreet places outside the building where you can get a picture without being spotted. Some do this by parking up nearby.
9. Life goes on after lunchtime
Most police-related crime gets dealt with before lunchtime but some of the most interesting court stories are often brought by organisations other than the police. The RSPCA, Benefits Agency, Environment Agency, DVLA and TV Licensing, local council (littering etc) are among the organisations which also bring prosecutions. It’s worth knowing who the press officers are for these organisations – even if you can’t make court, they’re keen to let you know what happens.
10. Don’t listen to gossip, second-source everything you don’t hear in court yourself.
Don’t rely on another reporter or someone in the public gallery to tell you what happened if you’re late/in another court. Court waiting rooms can be full of gossips – especially the regulars. And even if you get the result of a case from a “trusted” source – double check it with the court.