A major drug case in Portsmouth was abandoned yesterday after "blunders" by the Crown Prosecution Service that will cost the taxpayer up to £5m. The Independent had known that the case has been aborted for some weeks but could not reported the news because the case was subject to a reporting ban under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
This is just the latest example from the increasingly bizarre and complex world of court reporting bans, administrated by an arcane and ponderous judicial system, that makes little attempt to accommodate the modern media.
"There are serious problems for the media when it comes to dealing with the courts," says Bob Satchwell of the Society Of Editors. "Reporting bans have been imposed improperly, framed too broadly or without the reasons for the ban being given on the order, as is required by the Act. But woe betide the reporter or editor who then makes a mistake."
Operated locally by each court, there are many perils to unwary journalists. I have attended cases in which reporting bans are in force, where the courtroom has been switched without the reporting order being moved. In another case the order did not match the current defendants list. A mistake can cost justice dearly.
The Portsmouth case shows the kind of problems journalists are up against. The Judge had dismissed the jury in the first trial last autumn after six months and set it for retrial. He imposed a blanket reporting ban on the case but that was challenged by the local court reporter, Andrew Hopkins, of the Evening News in Portsmouth. The Judge then revised the order but only to allow the reporting of the dismissal of the jury and not the reasons for it.
Here at The Independent we felt that the order was wider than was needed to prevent prejudice of any future trial and was in effect stopping the story of the CPS's costly errors from being made public. I had to write via the court to explain we were minded to challenge the order. Some weeks later the Judge called me and apologised for the delay. He said he would have to consult the judge listed for the retrial. Two weeks later I received a letter stating that if we wanted to challenge the order we could only do so at a special hearing where both the defence and prosecution would have to be represented. With 14 defendants in the dock it would have been an expensive challenge.
While we were debating our next move we heard that the CPS had decided not to proceed with the retrial. This raised a number of important public interest questions. What went wrong? Who was responsible for the original blunders? Why has the retrial in this major case now been scrapped? However, the CPS warned me that I could not report the decision "until the Judge has revoked the reporting order". That did not happen until yesterday.
Alarmed by recent problems, The Society of Editors has been discussing court reporting with the senior Presiding Judge in the Crown Courts, Lord Justice Judge. "We and the Judicial Studies Board are shortly to publish a set of guidelines on court reporting that will be distributed to the judiciary and media. I don't doubt that there will still be serious disputes but at least this way we will be singing from the same hymn sheet," he said. I would suggest a further improvement. In the age of instant digital communications, it makes sense for the Lord Chancellor's Office to set up a central office with a related website to list all reporting bans - and the reasons.
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