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.

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.

Nigella Lawson leaves Isleworth Crown Court in December 2013. Photo: Getty.
Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR