Press seats 'almost always empty' in courtrooms, barrister claims

Updated: 

British justice is not being seen to be done because press seats in courts are almost always empty, a senior barrister has suggested.

Andrew Langdon QC says court reporters are in decline and may soon be "largely a thing of the past".

He says members of the public are getting "no professional narrative" of the "way we arrive at justice".

Mr Langdon, chairman of the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has outlined his concerns in a legal magazine.

"Due to the decline in court reporters, justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by the public," he writes in the latest issue of Counsel.

"Court reporters, and especially court reporters from local newspapers, have been declining in number for years and may soon be largely a thing of the past.".

He adds: "The large majority of cases, although conducted in public hearings up and down the land, and although producing outcomes that often dramatically affect the lives of the citizens concerned, operate essentially unseen and unheard by the public.

"The way in which the outcomes are arrived at is thus something of a mystery for the large majority of the uninitiated public.

"Worse, outcomes are often supposed to be influenced by factors that are by and large mythical."

Mr Langdon says judges' ruling or sentencing remarks can be obtained by journalists "who have picked up only fragments of a story".

He goes on: "What is missing is an accessible account by a reporter of what happened at the trial; the allegation, the rebuttal, the dynamic, and the personal consequences for the parties or the witnesses or others affected by what is unfolding in court.

"Traditionally most courts have a few seats reserved for the press. Nowadays they are almost always empty.

"The public receive no professional narrative of the way we arrive at justice."

Mr Langdon suggests citizen journalists are stepping into the void.

"Increasingly and perplexingly, into the vacuum drop one-sided reports via social media, not from professional journalists, but from aggrieved parties who, like single-issue campaigners or nefarious pressure groups with their own agenda, have access to mass communication and so can feed a narrative that often grossly distorts reality," he says.

"If it were not for this fairly recent phenomenon, the decline in court reporting would perhaps matter less.

"Why, after all, does the public need to know about what actually happens in court?

"One answer, I suppose, is that some level of public legal education is desirable, especially when some politicians seem inclined to trample over the hitherto relatively sacrosanct territory of judicial independence."

He says the problem is probably at its "most acute" in family courts.

"A decline in the number of court reporters and the limited number of published judgments, exacerbated by individuals and pressure groups who use social media to promote their particular agenda, often results in attacks not merely upon the process but on the judges and the lawyers trying to assist them," he adds.

"Even where cases are covered by the press, they rarely link to the judgment or set out the full context, and some are downright misleading."