Court Judgements: Public Reporting

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:00 pm, 22nd February 2016

3. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Justice, following the recent decision to reduce the number of local courthouses, what action he is taking to improve the access to the public reporting of court judgements. (AQO 9670/11-16)

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

The role played by the media in reporting cases and their outcomes is an essential component of the principle of open justice. Access to courts by the media and the public is not affected by a reduction in the number of courthouses. In this digital age, it is possible for reporters to submit articles directly from courthouses or to avail themselves of other technologies, such as Skype. Wi-Fi access in courts outside Belfast has also been factored into the Courts and Tribunals Service future ICT modernisation programme.

NICTS provides a specific online service for the media, allowing them to access full case details seven days in advance of the hearing. This, in addition to the services of press teams in NICTS and the office of the Lord Chief Justice, has reduced the need for reporters to attend court for every single hearing, which clearly frees up staff time.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

As well as reporting the decisions of courts, I think it is important that the public is aware of the cases themselves. With the centralisation of courts, there will of course be no courtroom within the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council area. That will make it more difficult for local journalists to report on cases. Does the Minister accept that, whilst the reports may be online, it will be more difficult for local journalists and people to access that information if it is not near to them? Has consideration been given to putting courts online, so that the public can follow what is said in a courtroom, just like the Assembly Committees or local councils?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Mr Beggs's latter point, though interesting, takes us into a very different area, which is around the whole issue of putting courts online. You will know that that has been done in only a very limited way in Scotland or in the Supreme Court when giving decisions. I think that we are long way from seeing the benefits of that. I must say that, living not that far away in the council area adjacent to that of Mr Beggs, I see no difficulty in my local newspapers reporting the activities of either Mid and East Antrim Borough Council or Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, where reporters have to travel a bit. I cannot therefore see that they would have much problem reporting on the courts.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 2:15 pm, 22nd February 2016

Given the success of the televising of some court proceedings on the mainland, is it not something that the Lord Chief Justice should be encouraged to facilitate in Northern Ireland, at least for the Court of Appeal, so that the public are able to see exactly what happens in the courts rather than having to rely on a filter from journalists outside the building or, indeed, the print media? That would be a good way of opening up greater access to the courts.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I certainly think that Mr Givan raises an interesting point when he talks about the Court of Appeal giving judgements. However, I am not sure, given the time that it can take for a judgement in the Court of Appeal, that the public would necessarily see everything. They might well have something filtered through television editors rather than television reporters selectively reporting from the street outside. The issue merits consideration, but I must confess that it is not my first priority in managing the courts at this stage.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answers and for his acknowledgement that reporting in court cases is very important and may even be a deterrent to further crime. Can he advise the House whether any media or press organisations responded to the consultation on court rationalisation?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

The answer to Mr McCarthy's question is fairly simple, Mr Speaker: no media organisation responded to the consultation on court closures. I think that one raised the potential closure of Enniskillen, when a local newspaper representative talked about travelling times for journalists. However, as Members will recall, Enniskillen will remain as a hearing centre, so that problem has been addressed. There were certainly no formal responses from any media organisation.