Court visits

This is a guide for journalism students making their first visits to law courts in England and Wales. It does not deal with all kinds of court.

Don’t publish: DO NOT PUT YOUR COURT REPORTS ONLINE, EVEN JUST ON A BLOG. This is an informal policy; however, a legal error in a report could lead to serious trouble and an appearance in court, so the best advice is caution. Court stories must not be used on course websites or any course social media feed. You are strongly advised not to tweet or post on Facebook about what you hear in court, even afterwards. 

It is very important that anyone entering journalism understands how courts work, even if they do not think it will be part of their job. In early 2019, a BBC editor was put on trial over a serious legal error made by a reporter. The reporter was an experienced, senior BBC journalist – but it emerged that he had never covered a court case before. Read more here.

Journalism students at Coventry University are mostly likely to find themselves visiting two kinds of court:

Magistrates’ court: the lowest-level court, usually with three (sometimes two) magistrates who decide on guilt, pass sentence, or send a case to a higher court, among other functions. Magistrates are ordinary citizens, usually with limited legal training; they may well have knowledge based on many years of experience. Their most important qualities are wisdom, honesty, common sense and fairness. They are supported by a legal adviser, a professional lawyer who ensures the law is followed. Cases are presented by lawyers who are usually solicitors.

There is no reason a student should not apply to be a magistrate! It would be great on a CV and you would be entitled to have the letters JP (for Justice of the Peace) after your name. And you’d be serving society. If you have a strong desire to punish people, then you’re NOT the right person for the job.

A Coventry University student became one of the youngest magistrates in the country.

Coventry students visit Coventry magistrates’ court, between the city council building and the police station. On a Monday there are no trials but the court deals with custody cases: often, dealing with people who have been detained over the weekend and deciding whether they can be given bail. On Tuesday, trials are heard. Hearings of some kind take place every weekday. Students can go to find stories at any time. Hearings usually last less than an hour so it is possible to gain all the information needed for a full, balanced report. 

Crown court: this is where the more serious criminal trials take place. A judge oversees the trial, but it is the jury that actually decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The judge ensures the law is adhered to, and that the trial is fair; the judge also passes sentence. The jury is made up of 12 ordinary members of the public who simply listen to the case. They must reach their verdict solely on the basis of what they hear in the trial, which is why it is very important that media reports do not bring in additional information, or report something that is said in court when the jury is not present. Once the trial is over, the media can bring in other facts, and broadcast interviews.

Coventry students visit Birmingham Crown court, which is one of the biggest Crown court complexes in the country, with 14 courtrooms. Major trials take place here. There is also a Crown court in Coventry, but it sits for only two weeks out of every eight. Again, students can attend whenever the court is sitting, unless a hearing is closed. 

Crown court hearings usually last more than a day, with lots of time taken up with legal argument that cannot be reported, so although trials are likely to be more interesting, it is less easy to gather information needed for complete, balanced and legally-safe report. We attend Crown court primarily for the insight and experience.

Find out what’s on

Court listings are published online, here. You can also click around the site to find details of the defendants, and case numbers, and also to find out the outcome of cases in the archive.

At Birmingham Crown court one can simply turn up and have a very good chance of sitting in on an interesting case. Ask at the reception desk to find out what trials are on.

Coventry Crown court is a satellite court for Warwick Crown court. It sits, roughly, every six weeks, usually for a fortnight. The best way to find out about cases is to ring Warwick Crown court on 01926 682411 (select option 3 for listings).

Visiting a court

Look smart: There is no requirement to dress smartly, but it is wise not to be overtly scruffy: it will help if you find yourself having to stand up in front of the magistrates or a judge, or asking for help. You are showing respect for the court. Wearing a T shirt with an offensive slogan could even be contempt of court – a crime.

Security: You will have to pass through a security check so limit what you take with you, and allow time to empty your pockets and be scanned.

Food: You must not eat and drink in the court room; eating a chocolate bar in the public waiting area should be fine but we suggest taking nothing but water. You cannot take hot food in to the Birmingham Crown court building. There is a cafe inside, on the top floor.

Arrive early: It helps to arrive a little early (just before 10am, say) so you can find out what is happening at court. At Coventry magistrates’ court, there is usually a list of all the cases at the top of the stairs. You can also ask the ushers – the people in black robes but no wigs. On an organised trip, your teacher will do this.

At Birmingham Crown court, a list of the trials taking place in each court is held in reception. It will state which trials are just beginning, and which are part-heard, and what the trial is about. On organised trips, we may well be given a list.

Seating: we sit in the public gallery. At the magistrates’ court, this usually means the seating at the back of the room, facing the bench (where the magistrates sit).

There is not usually room in one courtroom for all the students on a visit, so the teacher will negotiate to see how many students can sit in each court. If relatives of a defendant or a witness need a seat, we will need to make way.

Court rise: when the magistrates or a judge enters or leaves the courtroom, everyone in court stands up. If lawyers or court staff leave the court room while the court is in session, you will see them turn to the judge or magistrates and nod just before passing through the door: we do not have to do this. We can leave and enter court when proceedings are taking place, but you do so very discreetly. Entering court, it is best to look through the window first to judge whether to enter.

Silence in court: no talking is allowed when the judge or magistrates are in the court room. When they are not in the room, quiet discussion is allowed.

Closed session: in the Crown court, you must check there is not a sign on the door saying Closed Session. If there is, it means the judge is speaking confidentially with lawyers and we must not enter.

Just hanging around: there is a lot of waiting around at the courts. Bring something to read by all means, but if in court when the judge or magistrates are present, you must not read, doodle or do crosswords etc: you must listen quietly. Not to do so is contempt of court, though you are unlikely to go to prison!

Taking notes: this is allowed, but court staff are likely to say it is not. See the warning in red further down this page.

Some dangers and problems

Threats: we have a right to be there (usually): be aware court cases can be very sensitive and it is not unknown for relatives of accused people to object to our presence. Court staff and the magistrates will usually strongly defend our right to be there, but if taking notes be aware you might be sitting next to a relative. If you are worried, you do not have to stay.

Phones off: airplane mode is not enough – you must switch off your phone in court. A vibrating phone set to silent can irritate a judge or disturb a cross-examination. You may see professional journalists tweeting during a hearing, but students and the public MUST NOT do this. To do so without permission can have serious consequences. This is a special privilege, made on the assumption that professional journalists are trained and know the dangers of writing something – even a tweet – that might prejudice a trial.

No pictures: don’t take a camera into court. It may be switched off and in a bag, but it will cause an upset. Taking pictures of people entering and leaving court carries legal risks which are carefully considered by news organisations. Students should not do take the risk.

No sketches: don’t draw sketches in court – it’s banned under the Criminal Justice Act 1925. Those sketches you see of court room scenes are not drawn in court: the artist sits in court and makes notes, and draws his picture afterwards.

Taking notes – a warning: we have a right to take notes (usually) but court staff may well tell us we cannot. In February 2016, the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court issued a ruling that people should be allowed to take notes in the public gallery. The judges quoted Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service guidelines to staff, which say: “There can be no objection to note taking in the public gallery unless it is done for a wrongful purpose; for example to brief a witness who is not in court on what has already happened.”

If students plan to take notes that it would be very wise to seek permission on arrival at the court, before the judge or magistrates enter. Approach the court usher (in black robes but not wearing a wig) and explain the situation. It would help to produce a copy of Cleland Thom’s article about the ruling, here. It may also help to take a copy of the ruling, though it long and difficult to follow.

Don’t talk to jurors: it is a crime to seek to find out about what has gone on in the jury room. Even the judge, lawyers and defendants are not allowed to know. Jurors have been sent to prison for tweeting about a case; they must not talk to the media.

Don’t publish: DO NOT PUT YOUR COURT REPORTS ONLINE, EVEN JUST ON A BLOG. Lets say that again:

Don’t publish!

Journalism students at Coventry University are very strongly discouraged from publishing court reports on the internet, because of the risk of committing contempt of court, or breaching a reporting restriction. Journalism staff cannot be expected to spot serious legal errors if they were not in court themselves. Additionally, students are warned they cannot rely on facts taken from court reports in other media, including the BBC – even though errors are very rare.

On news days, students should not run court stories lifted from other media, including the BBC, although a lecturer may decide a very limited report is allowable when, say, sentence is passed and there is no risk of prejudice to a trial. In the case of police report of arrests, advice MUST be sought from staff before publishing.

What happens in court

At the magistrates’ court, we might observe various proceedings, including applications for bail, decisions on people who have failed to pay fines, requests to vary a community sentence, and so on. At the Crown court there may be various kinds of pre-trial hearings, but we are more likely to observe actual trials.

A trial only takes place if someone denies the charges against them. If someone admits the charges – pleads guilty – there will still be a hearing, but it is not a trial and it is only to determine the facts so an appropriate sentence can be passed. Victims are unlikely to have to give evidence.

All cases start in the magistrates’ court. At the early hearing(s), the court will hear a brief outline of the case – which cannot be reported – and decide whether to remand the defendant in custody or grant bail, often with conditions such as a requirement to stay in a bail hostel. We can never, ever report the reasons for granting or refusing bail, because it can imply guilt. Custody usually means prison or a young offenders’ institution, where the defendant will await trial. Remember, at this stage they are considered innocent. The magistrates will also decide whether to hear the case themselves, or send it to the Crown court for jury trial. The defendant may have the right to choose jury trial.

For a summary (less serious) offence, the trial is automatically held in the magisrates’ court.

For an indictable (more serious) charge, such as murder, the case must be sent to the Crown court. It is “adjourned”.

For an either-way charge, the case can be heard at either court. The defendant may think he has a better chance with a jury made up of ordinary members of the public.

In a trial, lawyers will present both sides of the case and witnesses will give evidence in court, and at the end of the hearing a verdict is reached – guilty, or not guilty. Sentencing might take place the same day, or there might be an adjournment so reports can be prepared, to help decide what punishment would be appropriate. It is not uncommon for students to see people sent to prison.

In the magistrates’ court, cases are usually brought by the Crown prosecution service and presented by solicitors. Other bodies can bring prosecutions, including a council’s Trading Standards officers, or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In the Crown court, only barristers can present a prosecution or defence case. They are briefed by solicitors who act as a go-between between the client and the barrister. They may also sit in court behind the barristers. Barristers and solicitors are all lawyers, but with different training and qualifications.

A trial follows this pattern:

  • Defendant pleads guilty or not guilty (there may be several charges)
  • The prosecution outlines its case
  • The prosecution calls its witnesses and questions them to draw out evidence
  • The defence cross-examines each witness, trying to undermine the evidence
  • The defence outlines its case
  • The defence calls its witnesses, seeking evidence to weaken the prosecution case
  • The prosecution cross-examines each witness, trying to undermine their evidence
  • Both sides make their final speeches
  • In the lower court, the magistrates may retire (leave the room) to consider the verdict
  • In a Crown court, the judge sums up the evidence and sends the jury to consider the verdict
  • The jury or magistrates “return” their verdict
  • If the verdict is “guilty”, the defence will present arguments to try to secure a lesser sentence
  • The prosecution may ask for costs, and compensation for victims
  • Sentence is passed, possibly after an adjournment (pause) of days or weeks

The jury must decide the case only on the evidence they have heard in court; if they decide there is reasonable doubt about whether the defendant is guilty, then they must find him not guilty. The prosecution has to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt; the defence does not have to prove the defendant is not guilty in order to win – establishing doubt is enough.

If there is more than one defendant, then each defendant may have his own defence lawyer.

Legal arguments: the hearing may well be interrupted by legal discussion, often because one lawyer wants to introduce evidence that the other side may find unacceptable. In the Crown court, the jury will be sent out while the judge hears the arguments and decides what to do. The public, media and defendant stay in court for these arguments, but they must not be published in any way – including on social media or even conversation – because of the risk the jury will be influenced by what has been said. These discussions can help students understand how the courts – and justice – work.

Are we always allowed in court?

No. The judge may wish to talk to the lawyers in closed session, perhaps to express concerns about a case; there will be a sign on the door to say this.

The public cannot attend youth courts. However, youth court hearings can be reported as long as the defendant is not identified in any way. For this reason, the court must allow one reporter to be present, and report the facts on behalf of all media. It may be necessary for a reporter to insist on this.

Sometimes judges will order that a hearing must take place in secret, perhaps for national security reasons, or to protect the identity of a spy. Such cases are very exceptional and always vigorously challenged.

People who claim they have been the victim of a sex offence are entitled to anonymity for life, but the media can still be present in such cases and report the proceedings, as long as no clue is given that might lead people to work out the alleged victim’s identity. This is because…

Open justice is a fundamental principle in England and Wales, and in courts around the world that are based on the British legal system. It means that justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done. The public have a right to be present at most court hearings. The news media are seen as playing an important public-scrutiny role in the courts, so they have some additional privileges. News reports help people to understand what is and is not against the law.

Generally speaking, reporters can safely report anything that is said in front of magistrates, a jury, or a judge hearing a case without a jury, once a trial has started. This is so even when bad things are being said about people. But for reporters and the media to be protected against being sued for defamation or contempt of court, reports must be balanced, fair and “contemporaneous” – meaning the report must be published at the first opportunity to be legally protected. If the defendant denies the charges, this must be reported. This legal protection is called “absolute privilege”.

Nothing a reporter writes must prejudice a trial. Prejudice, in the courts, means anything that might influence magistrates or a jury. Trials have been stopped because of prejudicial reporting at great expense, meaning it has to start again with a new jury. It is very rare for journalists to be sent to prison for prejudice to a trial, but it has happened.

Decline in reporting: Winchester University students surveyed local paper editors and found most agreed courts were no longer being properly reported. Read more.

In Bristol, journalism students spent a week monitoring 300 magistrates’ court cases and found 50 of them to be newsworthy, but only saw a professional journalist on the third day of the exercise. Read more.

Tedious? Students usually find visits to court interesting for the insights they provide into people’s lives. Media law trainer David Banks, in a blog, says it’s important for the press to cover the courts to “represent a public which has things to do other than sit through tedious hearings on the lookout for something ‘important’.”

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