In My Opinion: Fiona Davidson: Ensuring justice is seen to be done

COURT reporting is important to society. It ensures that justice is not only done but is seen to be done.

And it keeps us all informed about what kinds of conduct will land us in court.

But how can justice be seen to be done if there are no reporters in court to watch the trials and tribulations of local life and report them in the local press?

And how can justice be seen to be done if there is no longer a local press to report what happens in court, or is no longer willing to report local court cases?

If courts are not reported, how can the public remain informed about what will land them in court without weekly reminders in the local newspapers?

In the old days, an appearance in the sheriff court round-up in the local rag was enough to name and shame, or a claim to fame among certain elements of society, and the embarrassment and humiliation along the lines of ‘what will the neighbours think’ would be a sufficient deterrent.

But local papers are a much rarer breed these days. And they are certainly not read as much. And the sheriff courts are not reported to the same extent, if at all.  So how can the next generations learn about justice, and how to avoid ending up in court?

Of course, the major cases and those at the High Court will still be covered by the few remaining court reporters who can barely manage to make a living from their trade.

Often, nowadays, cases are publicised through news releases issued by Government departments such as the Crown Office. Similarly, Sentencing statements are issued by the Judiciary of Scotland.

Helpful, maybe, but not independent.

Often, the mainstream media, under considerable financial pressure to make every penny count, will gladly accept those media release handouts for free rather than accept the work of experienced court reporters, despite their experience and expertise, knowledge of the system, hard-earned contacts and reputation for reporting in a fair and accurate manner, ensuring copy is unbiased, impartial and produced contemporaneously.

Which then begs the question: whatever happened to the independence, the impartiality and the unbiased reporting of the press, with its important role as public watchdog?

Tomorrow, an one-day, free training course is being hosted by the NUJ Scotland, aimed at journalists and covering major aspects of media law including courts and the legal system, contempt of court, privacy, freedom of expression, copyright and protection of sources.

A particularly topical issue will be defamation and the differences between defamation laws north and south of the border. The Scottish Law Commission published a discussion paper on defamation law earlier this month, asking whether defamation law in Scotland should be brought into line with that of England and Wales following the introduction of the Defamation Act 2013.

There is, of course, the relatively new phenomenon of social media, which provides an opportunity for court reports to be shared, reaching a wider audience, perhaps the parts that newspapers can no longer reach. New opportunities create new challenges but these challenges are not insurmountable.

The legal rules for reporting legal proceedings still apply on social media. Journalists have to be aware of potential contempt of court, defamation, breach of copyright and other legal pitfalls. The risk of comments poses a risk but there are ways and means that comments can be prevented or moderated.

That’s why it’s important journalists are familiar with the law – whether writing, editing, posting or even sharing posts on social media, whether it’s court reports or any other material.

If the press continues to report courts in the first place, by sharing on social media, it may well help justice to be seen to be done.

Fiona Davidson is a freelance journalist, lawyer and media law tutor at the University of Strathclyde and is running a media law and ethics course for the National Union of Journalists in Glasgow on Wednesday March 30. Contact for more information.