A view of a sign at Greenwich Magistrates Court is pictured in south-east London, on July 10, 2008. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Magistrates should be stripped of their powers to restrict court reporting

Coverage of our courts is being censored - because magistrates are too quick to impose unnecessary reporting restrictions. In the interests of open justice, this has to stop.

 

Twelve years ago prison governors asked for magistrates courts to be stripped of their powers of imprisonment.

The prison population had soared to 70,000 and there was no more room - it was a crisis. (The number of people in jail today is 85,902, but relax! We’ve built more prisons to house the highest per capita prison population in Europe.)

Today I would like to propose another curb on magistrates’ powers. They need to be stripped of the ability to interfere with the reporting of the courts, because, to put it bluntly, many of them have not got the first idea of what they are doing.

Courts have various ways in which they can limit the reports that come out of their court. These are separate to the anonymity for victims of sexual offences and children in youth court, which is automatically applied by law and has nothing to do with a court order.

However, all courts - Magistrates, Crown and upwards - are given statutory powers to limit reports in various circumstances.

If a child is involved in an adult case, as a witness for example, they can place a so-called Section 39 order on that child making them anonymous.

If the court feels a detail from the proceedings might prejudice a trial it can make an order postponing reporting of it - a Section 4 order under the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Or if there are fears for national security, a complete ban can be issued under Section 11 of the 1981 Act.

The problem is that when it comes to interpreting the law concerning open reporting of the courts, magistrates and (sad to say) sometimes judges seem to be acting on a whim.

Recently I have seen the following:

  • A court unlawfully place a Section 39 anonymity order on the children of a woman accused of murder, even though they were not involved in the proceedings in any way and therefore could not in law be the subject of such an order
  • A court consider refusing to allow a sexual offence victim to waive her anonymity, even though in law she could do so and the court had no power to stop her - and to do so would be a violation of her Article 10 right to freedom of speech
  • A magistrate refuse to give her name to reporters covering a case, in contradiction of a ruling made in R v Felixstowe Magistates saying that they must give their names to the media so they can properly and openly report the proceedings
  • A section 39 order placed to anonymise a child who was dead, and who would therefore, obviously, play no part in the proceedings whatsoever

It may be that the magistrates concerned have not been given training in this aspect of the law - although their powers, and the restrictions on them, are very clearly set out in the booklet Reporting Restrictions in the Magistrates Court by the Judicial Studies Board, copies of which should be available in every court, and if not are easily obtained online.

It is also possible that they have received guidance, but are persuaded too easily by lawyers representing a defendant, to make an order which curtails reporting unnecessarily.

Either way these orders can severely hamper the open reporting of the courts and as so often has been stated in the past, justice unreported is no justice at all.

So these powers should be removed from lay magistrates and placed instead in the hands of a district judge or higher, so that proper legal argument can take place.

This would still not be perfect – district judges and those in crown court are capable of making daft orders on occasion, but are generally more open to persuasion otherwise if they can be shown case law or statute contradicting them.

The courts are woefully under-reported these days and they should be making every effort to be more open and accommodating to those who would inform the public of what goes on there. Making unlawful orders that close down coverage does nothing to help.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump