When criminal court cases start off in the magistrates’ court, reporters may be severely restricted in what they can report. This is to prevent prejudice to a future trial in front of a jury at a higher court.
These initial hearings take place to decide where a case should be dealt with (at the magistrates’ court, or at the Crown court, say), and whether the defendant should be remanded in custody (that is, while they wait for their trial, should they be locked up, or allowed to go free “on bail”, or some other arrangement such as staying in a hostel?).
The case is then EITHER dealt with immediately (if it is a less serious “summary” case) or “adjourned” while legal preparations continue.
A defendant may have been arrested and charged before the police have even completed their investigations. At this time, full reporting is not allowed: the “facts” outlined in court may be challenged at the eventual trial.
Section 52A of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 sets out EIGHT POINTS that reporters can safely include in their reports of these early hearings. They are:
- The name of the court and the name of the justice or justices (another word for magistrates);
- The name, age, home address and occupation of the accused;
- In cases involving “serious or complex” fraud, any “relevant” business information;
- The offence or offences, or a summary of them;
- The names of counsel and solicitors involved in the hearing;
- If the case is adjourned, the name of the court it is adjourned to, and the date it will next come to court;
- The arrangements for bail;
- Whether legal aid was granted.
If the defence apply for bail and it is refused, reporters MUST NOT report the reasons it is refused. This is because doing so might – for instance – prejudice the future trial, by suggesting the defendant has a criminal character or criminal connections, and is therefore likely to be guilty.
The defendant’s past offences must NOT be reported until a trial is over, unless there has been an application to the court. Again, doing this might suggest they are likely to be guilty.
The eight points are things that can definitely be reported safely. But in practice, media outlets can often report other details, such as what the defendant was wearing, or the fact that he “spoke only to confirm his name”. They might also give information that could not possibly be contested in a trial: for instance, that a celebrity defendant is famous for a particular acting role.
The exact wording of the charges can be useful, because they may contain information that can be reported, such as where and when a crime was alleged to have taken place. The exact wording does not have to be published, especially if it is legalistic language (“legalese”).
Note, it is not the case that cases heard in the magistrates’ court cannot be reported in full. In fact, the principle of open justice means that if they should be reported. This applies to trials in the magistrates courts, or other cases that are dealt with entirely by the magistrates – for instance, where a defendant pleads guilty to a minor offence, and the magistrates’ must hear an outline of the case and decide on the sentence. All this can be reported. It is only the early hearings that are restricted under the Crime and Disorder Act.