A hack's look at the law

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What's the point of open justice if there isn't anyone to report it?

Thanks to the dearth of court reporters, Nigella Lawson's trial is one of the few you will ever hear of.

Nigella Lawson leaves Isleworth Crown Court in December 2013. Photo: Getty.

The Southport Visiter carries a regular column, which can leave you in no doubt of its contents. It's called "Look Who's In Court."

The archaic spelling of the paper's name hints at its age, it is one of the UK's oldest publications, having first gone on sale in 1848. It has had time to develop a keen sense of what interests its readers.

Southport is the sort of town where there are still net curtains to twitch and "Look Who's In Court" appeals to the twitchers.

We abolished the pillory in 1837, perhaps the emergence of newspapers like the Visiter shortly afterward filled a gap in the market.

Is it fair that people should be held up for public ridicule, scorn and condemnation in this way? There are growing voices that say no.

They say that this publicity, coupled with internet publication that amplifies the damage done, is not right.

We saw this before Christmas when Nigella Lawson had her private life very publicly exposed when she was a witness in the trial of the Grillo sisters, former PAs to her and her ex-husband Saatchi.

The spectacle was fascinating to court-watchers, but no doubt deeply unpleasant for Nigella, who said afterward that she had not been able to counter some of the allegations being made about her and her family during the trial.

There was even the suggestion that witnesses in trials should have the right to counsel in the court. An interesting idea to float when cuts to Legal Aid have seen barristers on strike this week. One imagines that such counsel will not be provided by the public purse and will therefore only be available to witnesses like Nigella who have the wherewithal to pay them.

There are many who feel the same way, be they defendants, or witnesses, in trials, who have aspects of their lives examined and cross-examined at length, then duly reported by whoever happens to be sitting on the press bench.

Sometimes they try to prevent such reporting. This is what happened in the case of Asha and Kashif Khan, who were accused of perverting the course of justice over a plan to help their father evade a speeding fine. Asha was convicted, her brother was acquitted, but a request to ban reporting of the case was initially granted by the judge, in York, on the grounds that the pair would be shamed in the eyes of their community.

It took a two-day challenge by the Daily Mail to have the order overturned and the case reported properly.

The Khans are by no means the first to try this tack. Prison officers charged with fraud have tried to use fear of retribution to have their details kept from the public gaze. Ex-husbands worried about retribution from vengeful exes have also asked that their address be kept out of the papers.

It is almost invariably the press, if they are there, who fight these restrictions. And that is the real point – if they are there. The Mail was interested in the Khans’ case, but most of the time they will not make the trip to the provinces or use agency copy unless it is a major story.

Open reporting of the regional courts requires papers to do as the Visiter does and let them know daily or weekly, just who is in court. But for years now regional papers have cut back on staff, or even disappeared as titles entirely – just before Christmas they closed my old paper, the Liverpool Daily Post.

Without journalists fighting restrictive orders, defendants can happily avoid unpleasant publicity. And if the papers no longer send to court they grant de facto secrecy that they would no doubt object to if it were imposed by a judge.

The court reporter occupies the press bench for your entertainment, nothing else. Sure, they fulfil a useful role in a democracy of ensuring the open reporting of justice, but that is a by-product of their main effort, which is to give you something you are prepared to read. If readers are no longer interested – and that is a belief that has been growing for some time among editors – then there is no point in them sending their reporters there.

While Nigella will always command a packed press bench, other less celebrity-packed trials will attract less attention, or none at all.

Ultimately the danger to the open reporting of the courts is not secretive defendants seeking restrictive orders from compliant judges, but our indifference.