Getting a defendant’s address

This is a quick post on what to do if a court is obstructive in providing details of a defendant, including their name and address.

In the various training sessions I carry out for media, this is a fairly constant complaint – that magistrates, judges and court staff are sometimes reluctant to give reporters access to very basic details about a defendant.

There are some very limited circumstances in which a court can restrict reporting of some details about a defendant, but these are exceedingly rare, and in any event should be enforced by the relevant court order, allowing for representation from the media.

This is not the situation I am talking about here. I am told by many reporters in different parts of the country that when they ask for a defendant’s address in particular, they are told that the court will not provide that information even where there is no legal reason whey they should not do so.

Any judge, magistrate or member of court staff behaving in such a manner is wrong and here is why.

Firstly, it is contrary to the principles of open justice. In normal proceedings everyone is properly identified – defendant, witnesses, judges, magistrates and yes, even the lawyers.

Secondly, a defendant’s address is part of his identity, it differentiates him from other people of the same name. This was stated very clearly by the Record of Liverpool David Clark, in R v Carroll in 2000, where a defendant fearing reprisals wanted his address to be withheld.

Thirdly, a court behaving this way is acting in defiance of its own rules on reporting restriction. Any reporter facing this situation should refer the court to this document – Reporting Restrictions in the Criminal Courts – which sets out their obligations.

See page 23, which explains the requirements on the courts to make lost available and that, “At a minimum the lists should contain each defendant’s name, age, address and, where known, his profession and the alleged offence. Courts will not breach the Data Protection Act 1998 by providing journalists with such information.”

It is perfectly clear what the courts should provide. Any judge or magistrate who objects to providing this information really ought to take the matter up with the Ministry of Justice and refrain from restricting information on a whim.

If you want me to train your staff in challenging obstructive courts, and other media law matters, contact me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

What do you need for the pain? Cold, hard compo

THE Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has been warned this week that the Government’s Royal Charter regulation plan could result in thousands of expensive compensation cases against local newspapers.

The Newspaper Society warned that up to 1,000 cases a year might have to go to arbitration, with each one costing newspapers thousands of pounds they can ill afford in the current economic climate.

The NS submission included a letter from Tony Jaffa, a solicitor with huge experience in advising regional newspapers, which said: “It seems to me that campaigners for reform of ‘the press’ have little knowledge of the way in which regional and local newspapers operate… I am concerned specifically about the real risk that the reforms being proposed will result in a flood of legal claims against the regional press…

“If the last 23 years of advising the regional press has taught me anything, it is that if those with complaints… think they have an entitlement to money, they will pursue such claims, irrespective of the actual merits… The current proposal for arbitration envisages a system in which the complainant has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by bringing a legal claim.”

He is right, and any editor who has had to deal with complaints will tell you so too.

I remember one tale told me by a regional editor, who shall remain nameless, whose paper had committed some very slight error in reporting an elderly man’s death.

The son had come in to see him to explain, at great length, how this error had devastated the family, his grieving mother in particular.

The editor was sympathetic, and apologetic and said that, of course, the paper would correct the error it had made and apologise.

“Is that all?” came the reply.

Well, said the editor, perhaps a bouquet of flowers for his mother as some small recompense for what was, after all, a genuine mistake, with no malicious intent.

“Is that all?” replied the son, once more.

A little bemused by now, the editor inquired what he felt the newspaper could do further to undo its error.

“Can you not give us something…something…for the pain?” came the reply.

Something meaning cash.

Most complaints people have against regional newspapers are not on grounds of privacy, but accuracy, and do not warrant cash compensation, but prominent correction. The Royal Charter put forward by government would have given that complainant somewhere to seek financial redress for the pain he and his family were feeling, no matter how little merit his case had. And regardless of outcome, it would have cost that newspaper money to go through that process.

If the government Royal Charter goes ahead it will be hard-pushed regional newspapers that will be feeling the pain.