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

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war