Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Media Law: Courts: Reporting and structure

The court system in England is divided into two parts: civil and crown (or state court). Both have a pyramid hierarchy that tries defendents on the severity of their offences.

Criminal courts deal with cases of a defendent against the Crown. Crown courts only try defendents for indictable offences meaning they can go to prison for 5 years or more. Mainly cases like murder, rape etc.

The civil side of the law deals with minor offences such as disputes over who owns a tree that overhangs two gardens for example. The civil umbrella covers all disputes both personal and corporate. From magistrates to county court, they deal with summary offences like public drunkenness.

Each-way offences are cases that can be heard in either a Crown Court or a Magistrates Court.

Laws can come from a number of sources. Mainly common and statute law and of course acts of Parliament. However in recent years, EU law has had a profound effect on law in this country.


The main pitfalls for journalists when it comes to reporting the courts are contempt and prejudice.

Contempt of court occurs when something is published that breaches the rules of court reporting by potentially causing prejudice. In 2002, Leeds United footballers Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were accused of assualting another individual but were eventually aquitted after a newspaper printed an article with a relative of the alleged victim. This could have prejudiced the jury and therefore the pair would not have had a fair trial.

Prejudice is the other side of this legal coin and occurs when an article jeopardises the right of an individual to a fair trial.

When it comes to reporting the courts there are strict guidelines to avoid being hit by the legal sledgehammer.

In the immediate aftermath of a crime there are no restrictions in place on reporting. Every detail can be printed.

As soon as police make an arrest the case becomes LEGALLY ACTIVE. This now puts restrictions on what you can and cannot report and any material that COULD potentially prejudice a jury must be removed or not reported.

As soon as Police lay charges and a trial becomes the next step then only UNCONTESTED FACTS may be reported.

When it comes to reporting the trial there are 7 key steps from which a journalist cannot stray.

You may report:

- The name, age, occupation and of the defendent.

- The names of the magistrates

- Names of solicitors/barristers

- Date and place of adjournment

- Whether legal aid was granted

- Whether bail was applied for ONLY - not whether it was granted or not and arrangments

- Charges faced

In Crown Courts a journalist may ONLY report when a jury is present.

There are measures to prevent minors from being identified in court. Section 49 affords anonymity to under-18s in youth courts and Section 39 affords them anonymity in adult courts. Journalists simply cannot report the names of minors in court.

Following on from this, journalists must be careful not to fall into the trap of jigsaw identification. If a minor's name is not reported then by reporting details like how old they are and what school they go to may allow people to piece together these bits of information and identify a minor.

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