Saturday, November 07, 2009

Where in the world?

We tend to pour moral outrage on to those parts of the world where people can be arrested, charged, tried and jailed in secret. Conversely we are proud of our own open and transparent judicial system.

Witness the widespread anger over attempts to prevent coverage of Parliament recently in the Trafigura case ... and yet, here in Leicester, if judges had their way, you might be surprised how often people were locked away in secret. As Editor of the local paper, I am threatened with jail if I report the cases.

Just in the past couple of weeks we have come across two such cases. In both, we have launched a legal challenge to the decisions of the courts to ban publication of details of the names of those charged and have won, overturning the decisions so that justice could not only be done, but be seen to be done.

In one case, we found ourselves in the ludicrous situation where the defendant had been named in the Mercury and details of the allegations against him had been published before a judge imposed an order banning us from publishing anything else. In other words, the man could have gone on to be jailed for many years, but you would never have known ... or equally unfairly, the man may have been found not guilty and would have had no way of telling the world that the allegations printed were unfair and that he was an innocent man.

We challenged the order immediately, but the judge dismissed our point of view and the trial went on in secret. By law, our reporter was allowed to remain in court, taking notes of everything that happened over the next few days but could not report it. Even more oddly, any member of the public could also sit in court listening to the case as long as they did not publish the details. Behind the scenes, we continued to challenge the order and even considered employing a barrister to take the case to the High Court - an expensive and time-consuming issue for us. In the meantime, we continued to send letters to the judge and, after a few days of stand-off, he unexpectedly relented and accepted our arguments about the importance of open justice and we were able to resume our coverage.

Why did the judge issue the ban in the first place? I would argue that it was because of a misguided belief that it would protect the victims of the crime, but we are experienced in covering cases in such a way that the defendant is named, but the victims protected. I've written about this before here.

UPDATED: I have removed the details of the next case because of a legal issue which I will blog about separately ... but we now find ourselves in the position where we would have to spend about £10,000 to challenge a court order made by a judge. It's an order we are sure is incorrectly made, but which the judge remains adamantly behind.

Earlier this week, I was asked to speak at a Common Purpose workshop. The title I was given to speak to was: Local media and its impact on the city and county. I knew they wanted me to talk about whether or not negative stories impacted adversely on the perception of the area, but I believe that is such a narrow view of our impact that I talked instead about the other ways we impact on Leicester.

And, this, ensuring we have an open and transparent justice system is just one of those ways. If we were not in court challenging the decisions of judges and magistrates, nobody would be. We would effectively have secret trials and people would disappear without explanation.

As I've said before, you'd miss us if we were gone.