COURT REPORTING - You questions answered

The Oxford Mail, like many other news brands, reports daily from court.

The Mail has a dedicated reporter, Will Walker, but often if there is more than one case to cover, our other reporters step in.

There are lots of rules and laws which govern court reporting, and journalists usually have a special qualification in media law so they can report safely from the court.

The newsdesk often get asked by defendants and their families to take court stories down.

Sometimes they are angry to see their name in the paper or online. We can understand why they are upset – going to court is traumatic enough without being in your local, or sometimes a national, paper. But there are really important reasons the press covers court:

1) It acts as a deterrent against crime. Being in court might be scary enough, but who wants to risk the perhaps painful and humiliating experience of being named and shamed in the press?

2) Open court hearings, and the reporting of these hearings by the press, are fundamental to open democracy. Taxpayers and citizens have a right to know what’s going on in their area and how their money is being spent. And that justice is being done. 

Here are some of the questions the Mail's newsdesk is frequently asked:

I've been in court. Why have you printed my name, address and age?

That’s to stop any confusion. If there is someone with the same name as you living in the same town, people who know that person might assume it’s them. Printing your address stops any law-abiding citizen from being defamed. Defamation is a criminal offence and could lead to the Mail being taken to court.

Say someone called Joe Bloggs from Oxford is sentenced for rape. The press needs to let people know … but what if there’s more than one Joe Bloggs living in Oxford? Imagine the problems it could cause for all the innocent Mr Bloggs' if we didn’t make it clear which one committed the crime.

I want you to take my address out, I’ve got kids/a family and I don’t want any repercussions for them!

We are sorry but – you should have thought about the consequences before committing a crime. Sometimes people call and say the Mail has caused them problems as a result of reporting on a court case. But the truth is, the problems were caused by you when you decided to commit a crime. We refer you back to point 1 – that reports from court act as a deterrent.

As a principle, we do not remove a defendant's identifying information from court reports. To do so would be set a dangerous precedent and damage the foundations of open justice. 

Lots of people act surprised or outraged that their case has been reported. The bottom line is, if you commit a crime, be prepared for a story to be published. 

Reporting trials.

We are entitled to report fully on ongoing trials where a defendant has pleaded not guilty to offences. In these cases we endeavour to cover all stages of the trial, from the prosecution case to the defence and then the final verdict, but this is not always possible when there are multiple cases taking place at the same time.

If a trial is reported at any stage we will always report the final outcome unless reporting restrictions forbid us from doing so.

But you reported it without asking for my permission?

Being blunt, we don’t have to. Courts must administer justice in public (see point two above). Open justice is a cornerstone of the law and vital to democracy. When courts start doing things behind closed doors without good reason, that’s the time to worry.

When a court is sitting in the open, the press can report on anything that happens in proceedings.

Unless there are specific reporting restrictions any individual involved in proceedings can be named and reported on - including witnesses.

My name was in the court round-up but I didn’t see your reporter in the court?

No, probably not. We tend to concentrate our coverage on crown court, but occasionally we go to magistrates if there’s enough public interest. But if you’re appearing in magistrates, don’t think it will go unnoticed. Magistrate courts send out their daily court listings and outcomes for the press to print. The publication of these listings is covered by a legal defence called qualified privilege. That means so long as the report is fair, accurate, published without malice and in the public interest, we're OK to publish. 

How come in one of your reports you’ve said a defendant or a victim ‘can’t be named for legal reasons’?

There are a few groups of people who get automatic anonymity in court.

Their name and details will still be read out in open court, but certain laws stop the press (and anyone else) from reporting them.

Victims of sexual offences have lifetime anonymity. This is automatic and means that any information which could lead to identification – name, address, place of work or school, relationship to defendant in certain cases – can’t be reported.

Anonymity kicks in as soon as an arrest is made. And even if the defendant is found not guilty, or the case is dropped, the alleged victim still has their anonymity.

There are only two times this is lifted:

1) The victim chooses to speak publicly

2) The alleged victim is found by a court to have been lying about the allegation.

Anonymity ends upon death – so if an inquest hearing is told that the deceased was a victim of a sexual assault, that can be reported.

What if I name the victim on social media or in the comments on the story?

As a rule, we try and turn off commenting on active court cases. That’s to stop anyone making comments which could prejudice an ongoing trial. But the rules above don’t just apply to the media – they apply to everyone. So if you know the name of an alleged victim of a sexual offence, and you identify them in a comment online, you could face going to court – and even prison – yourself.

The golden rule – think before you post!

Children and young people

People under 18 years old have anonymity in court. In youth court, this is automatic. In crown court, a special order is made.

Once a juvenile defendant has been convicted, a judge (or magistrate) can lift the anonymity.

Often they will hear representations from the media about why we think the defendant should be named.

The reasons for lifting the anonymity could be:

1) Public interest. The crime for which they’ve been convicted was serious and shocking at the time it happened. People have a right to know the perpetrator has been found.

2) To act as a deterrent to others

As above, anonymity ceases if the young person dies. So that’s why in inquest reports, children who have died can be named.

Section 11 and Section 4

A Section 11 can be applied by a judge to suppress the reporting of certain information. For example, the name of an alleged victim of blackmail. Why? Well, if someone is a victim of blackmail, do they really want their name and the accusations for which they’re being blackmailed, all over the papers? Knowing there are certain orders to protect victims of these crimes might encourage them to come forward.

Under Section 4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, courts have the power to suppress the publication of certain information until the end of a case. This is to stop any prejudice towards another linked case. If several defendants are due to be tried separately on the same charge, reporting on the first one could prejudice a jury in a later case.

So there's a brief explainer about why we cover court cases and the information we can publish. If you or a loved one have appeared in court and you call the newsdesk, we'll point you in the direction of this article and hope it helps. 

If you're charged and appear in a local court, it's likely your name, address, age and the charges against you will appear in the paper or online. 

Is there a question about court reporting you want answered? Email news@nqo.com and we will add the answer here.