Open Justice and Court Reporting: Dull or Drama?

At its best the courtroom provides compelling drama of the kind rarely seen on TV. On any given day you can witness anger, grief, happiness, apathy, despair and disbelief, sometimes from the same person. There are performances of great skill alongside acts of sheer incompetence. Decisions are made which affect lives for many years, if not forever.

Courtrooms can also be boring. So soul-destroyingly, mindnumbingly tedious that you wonder why mankind even exists. Sometimes it seems like you’ve been waiting a whole day for one ten-second event that didn’t quite match up to your expectations anyway. Sometimes nothing happens at all, at a cost so extravagant that you might feel nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ when criminals were caught, tried and executed before teatime.

We all intuitively know the system is dull, especially if we work 9 to 5 office jobs, but like most dull things we prefer not to think about them. We focus on the interesting things, just like journalists. We summarise an event when retelling it as an anecdote (or at least we should do). And so, when we do think about the system we are surprised all over again by how incredibly dull and time-consuming and wasteful it is.

This is what happened when West Midlands Police decided to send five press officers into Birmingham Magistrates Court to tweet the results of every case during a morning session on April 19.

Leaving aside the fact it took five press officers to do it (now you see why newspapers appear to neglect court reporting), the results were hailed as both ‘fascinating’ and ‘a waste of time and funding.’ And the Daily Mail wasn’t impressed either.

Some examples:

A 60 yr old female suspected shoplifter appeared in court for stealing flour and a cucumber. Adjourned until next week.

24 yr old Yardley man fined £200 fine £65 compensation for stealing electric fans and a mirror as the queue was too long!

22 yr old woman from northfield pleads not guilty to assaulting her daughter.adjourned until june for further evidence and trial

39 yr old man who stole £8.99 bottle of wine receives £15 fine to be deducted from his benefits

41 yr old erdington man given total of 20 weeks for 1 count assault on a police officer and 1 count common assault

30 yr old man accused of robbery of a mobile phone.remanded in custody for birmingham crown court

39 yr old bordesley green man fined £1,070 for no tv licence and failure to provide driving licence

A few of these might have warranted a paragraph or three in the local paper. Others are interesting purely because they shed light on something we tend not to think about. You can get fined £1,000 for having no TV licence? You can get taken to court for stealing a cucumber? We sort of knew this already, but still. We leave the bureaucracy to the bureaucrats so we can get on with more interesting things. Right?

What you read in the newspapers is what you see when you go to the cinema – the finished product. The dross, the repetition, the tedium has been weeded out and what is left is the highlights. It’s like watching the football without the delays, the half time intermission and the tedious passing around midfield that never goes anywhere. Like Hollywood films the result can be criticised for lacking in quality, but it’s been created for our entertainment.

Having said that, most local newspapers used to have a ‘Look Who’s In Court’ section. That stopped at one place I worked at because the court started charging money for the paper list, meaning a reporter would have to drop all the other exciting tasks like captioning school pageant photos to get down there. These days it doesn’t make financial sense to report the courts unless it’s a really big story.

Which is why the ‘tweetathon’ was a good idea – as a one-off. It did its job in opening up the Magistrates Courts for a morning. It educated, or at least readjusted, people to the reality of the justice system. But nobody wants a non-stop stream of court results fed directly to their brain, just like they don’t want to hear someone else’s thoughts all day and every day. There has to be a filter somewhere.

That doesn’t mean we should have to rely on a journalist or a posse of press officers. In this digital world, the Magistrates Courts should really publish the results themselves. They are already recorded on a computer system, it’s just we don’t have access to it. Once out there, the ‘internet’ would do the work. Significant results would be flagged up, passed on, commented upon and investigated. All without the cost that mitigates against a human being sitting in court all day waiting for a story that might never happen.

For an example of which, see here. Why Wigan should be the forerunner of this, I have no idea…

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