This unit is about Court reporting. In studying this unit, the reporter arms himself with a weapon that allows him practice unhindered.
On Successful completion of this unit, you should be able to:
- Explain why reporters are allowed to accurately report court cases
- Apply the standard rules governing court reporting
- Explain what contempt of court is
3.0 MAIN BODY
3.1 Court Reporting: General Background Information
As a reporter you have no special rights in a court of law. You entitled to no more information than is normally available to members are of the public. Any provision of special seating for the media should be seen as a courtesy of the magistrate or judge involved – there is no right to such accommodation. The public can be excluded from a court case only if it can be shown that by nothing short of their exclusion can justice be done. It clearly shows that a court cannot be closed just to save witnesses or parties from embarrassment or ridicule.
Of course, as with all principles, there are exceptions to the open justice principle. It does not apply to matters heard in chambers, which are usually procedural items. It does not apply to family law and children’s courts, although some reforms are underway as outlined earlier, basically allowing the reporting of some family law cases with identification of parties not allowed.
The judge or magistrate has the power to prohibit publication of all or part of any proceedings, even if the court is sitting in public. The court will sometimes prohibit the publication of the names of witnesses or parties where secrecy is paramount. An example would be the case of
someone giving evidence against a blackmailer, who may have to outline embarrassing personal details about the substance of the blackmail. The judge may order the suppression of the witness’s name to prevent embarrassment. Otherwise, as you could imagine, there would be few offers to testify against extortionists for fear of wives or husbands reading about their partner’s exploits.
But you need not worry greatly about having to read the judge’s mind on these things. For such an order suppressing identity to be binding, it must normally be clearly expressed by the judge or magistrate, or the judge must be maintaining such an air of confidentiality in the courtroom that any fool would get the message that it should not appear on the front page of your paper.
Regardless of how autocratic the judge or magistrate may appear, no matter what he or she orders you as a reporter to do, by no means argue, or debate the issue. A challenge to such a restriction can be safely made only from the Bar table, by fully briefed legal practitioners. As we cannot afford such counsel in this course, I strongly suggest you politely do what you are told when assigned to court rounds. Your editor may wish to legally challenge such orders when you are assigned to cover a High Court Case, but for most provincial and regional cases, it is just as well or err on the side of courtroom etiquette and to keep on the right side of the judge or magistrate. After all, he or she could be the very person hearing your plea against a negligent driving charge the very next week, and it would be unwise to test his or her independence on such an important guinea pig. stringent
When juries are sent from the courtroom, the court remains open, but publication of proceedings while they are absent is prohibited, as is any publication, which could intimidate or ridicule them.
Most permissible reports will consist of summaries of what was actually said in the proceedings. Even disruptions and incidents may be reported, although these must be intrinsically connected with the matter at hand. For example, fathers standing in court and yelling “dirty murderer” or “hope he burns’ at the alleged murder of their children, have published without problem. But, for instance, if the murder trial of a been rebel cricketer was interrupted by a demonstrator rising and “racist pig”, the publication could prove both contemptuous and yelling defamatory.
The quote from Lord Diplock about “fair and accurate reports” is crucial to work of the court rounds man. This was further reinforced by Chief Justice Jordan in Ex parte Terrill, Re consolidated Press Ltd. He said. “So long as any account so published is fair and accurate published in good faith and without malice on, one can complain that is and is publication is defamatory of him notwithstanding that it may injured his reputation, and no-one can in general be heard to say that is a have contempt of court notwithstanding that it may in fact be likely to create prejudice against a party to civil or criminal litigation”.
But warned, if your report is inaccurate or distorted you leave yourself and your publication wide open to defamation and /or contempt of court proceedings. For a report to be protected from defamation or contempt rulings it must be contemporaneous, which means you cannot dig up reports of old proceedings, which might prejudice an upcoming trial. Do not believe for a moment that small, heavily weighted sections of evidence or judgments can be quoted out of context just because they were said to court. Rebuttals of such evidence must also be stated in your report. A fair summary of the proceedings is protected just clearly as much as a verbatim account.
The report loses protection if it is partial, if it claims happened when in fact it did not, or if it withholds facts, which put a something different complexion on facts, which are truly reported. As long as you meet these requirements, you can use all your skills to find the news angle of the particular case and make it an interesting news item. You can even highlight some aspect of the case, which was not prominence by the judge or magistrate. given
3.2 Rules of Writing Court Stories
Avoid the formula approach to reporting court stories, unless specifically instructed to do so by your editor-in chief or editor. You will sometimes find that it is the policy of a provincial, suburban newspaper to follow such a formula, which was Fleet Street’s regional or way of reporting court cases in the 19th century.
In normal circumstances there is no reason to make your story as boring as the proceedings may seem to be. Of course, that does not mean you invent or exaggerate sections of proceedings, but it does mean you can highlight certain things, which may be of interest to your readers, but the magistrate, judge or counsel may have just skimmed over. Your readers will not be interested in the 30-minute legal debate between counsels over whether a generalia specialibus non-derogant applies in that particular instance. They will be much more interested in the five minutes a witness spends in the stand describing in detail how she was bashed, robbed or defrauded by the accused. Of course, you will remember, to outline the defendant’s rebuttal of the witness’s accusations.
It all comes down to that crucial phrase: BE FAIR AND ACCURATE. I would strongly recommend you write that phrase in capital letters in your study notes and doubly underline it, because it goes to the heart of good court reporting.
- Exercise cares at all times and go right to the heart of a case: At first you may find the legal jargon a little overwhelming. Refer to the legal glossary in the court booklet provided, or to the glossary in the back of Professor Sawer’s book. But as soon as you see through the legal jargon to understand the issues involved, court reporting can become satisfying and relatively straightforward. Always rest on the side of caution, and do not let your adjectives and adverbs run wild with vivid subjective description of parties or events.
- Develop a keen sense of news: Ability to seize on a bright story in the middle of an otherwise dull and involved case in essential. Of course, a keen sense of news comes naturally to many of you anyway. That is why you have chosen to become journalists. But again, be cautious, because as you know news does not necessarily equate with sensationalism, and just because a witness takes all his clothes off in the particular case does not necessarily make that an automatic angle on the story. The case might just happen to be the local mayor found guilty of a N10 million embezzlement, and the strip act might just pale into insignificance as aside show. In court, as on any round, news is relative. Your news sense is your ability to prioritise any given set of events.
- Take the utmost care with names and addresses: Check them with the official court papers and never rely on information supplied by court officials or other reporters. This should probably be at the top of the list, because it is a simple trap for young players. There are sad examples of journalist who rely on the outside sources for their stories, with dire consequences. Be sure the information you are being given is based on official court documentation. Do not trust any information volunteered to you by parties outside the court. Only what is read, said or put in evidence, in the hearing or sight of the reporter, in open court and in the course of the proceedings can be safely reported. procedure for your court reporting assignment will be for you to The get all spellings and addresses and other particulars from the police prosecutors, clerk of the court or other responsible court official. Again, though, it comes down to the basics of reporting. You always check and recheck the spelling of any someone’s name. If you assume the spelling of John Smith as JOHN SMITH, you might find it is real JON SMYTH. normal story such a mistake is bad enough, but in a court story In a you can leave yourself wide open to defamatory action by committing such an error. Even if you get the street name correct, it is not unlikely that there will be a real John Smith living in the same street, and he is not going to appreciate being mistaken for the John Smith being convicted of an indecent exposure offence.
At this point it is essential that you get all of the essential information for the case from the police prosecutor. Your story, when sent to the sub-editors, should include all the following:
- The day the case is heard. (Yesterday is not good enough, because the story might he held over for a day. If you use the word yesterday, always put in brackets afterwards the date of the actual hearing.) You will find that often newspaper reports of judicial proceedings are only protected from defamatory action if they are contemporaneous.
- The names of the judge, magistrate, and various counsels of the parties.
- A balanced account of any evidence and its rebuttal. When you have written your story, always take a printout or a photocopy of your original manuscript. This is vital to protecting your own neck in any future inquisition into an expensive defamation or contempt action. It is amazing how easily sub-editors “forget” they chopped out or changed vital information, but if you have your own printout, at least you can argue to your editor to your own defence. Always read and reread your own stories, and particularly court ones. A mental block in the pressure of a deadline could have you spelling names incorrectly, or even mixing up the names of defendants and their counsel. No matter how pressed you are for deadline, it is better that you miss that deadline than submit a court story you have not personally checked for corrections.
- Always approach a lawyer if in doubt about technical terms. Again, if in doubt, don’t leave out-check it with someone who knows. It is your job to ask questions. You are being grossly negligent and contemptuous by publishing false or misleading information just because you were too embarrassed to demonstrate your ignorance of legal term.
- Similarly, never submit for publication a report, which you yourself do not fully understand. It is better to miss the story than to play guessing games with points of law or court procedures. If you do not understand a point after it has been explained to you, ask for it to be explained again. If you still don’t understand a point after it has been explained to you, ask for it to be explained again. If you still don’t understand, and you are too embarrassed to say so, then go and ask someone else. But get it right before you write. When in doubt, find out. If still in doubt, leave out.
- Beware of the opening address by counsel in important criminal cases or public inquiries, such as Economic and Financial Crime Commissions (EFCC). They are only allegations and may not be subsequently proved in evidence.
- Never forget that charges are only allegations until proved by the evidence. The word “alleged” should always preface the statement of an offence. For instance, it is dangerous in the early stages of a case to say that an accused had been seen committing an offence. Such a statement is only alleged.
- Develop good shorthand. It is impossible to cover a superior court adequately without being able to write shorthand.
- Never use an affidavit unless every part has been read in court.
- Learn to write clearly and accurately about court proceedings without the slightest tinge of bias.
- In industrial courts remember that union officials and employers’ representatives may make allegations for political reasons and great care should be taken to see that they are made in open hearing and are recorded in the official transcript before they are used in a report.
- Never be afraid to ask for information. We have already discussed this.
- Always accede to the direction of the presiding judge or magistrate that certain facts and allegations must not be published. This action must always be reported to the editor. news
- If in doubt about some aspect of a court story, always inform the chief sub-editor.
- Remember that a misplaced word or name may lead to a writ for libel.
- Always record the adjournment of a case and never leave a case half reported. The final result be reported in the first available edition. The half you do not report could be just the important rebuttal evidence and your readership and jury could be half falsely left with the impression of guilt or innocence.
- Never use the word “admitted” in a court report unless quoting someone during the court proceedings. Otherwise use “said”.
- Check your newspaper’s policy on the publishing of the street numbers of people named in court actions. A good rule is to include them in your copy and let the subs cut them out if they want.
- Check carefully any doubtful or vital points in the official depositions of lower court cases, particularly inquests. A newspaper is liable if it publishes an error in a court deposition of evidence.
- Never, ever, adopt a facetious style to a court report or comment or even hint at your own opinions on the case, whether descriptive phrase or even punctuation. Play a court case straight by downs the line. Yes, by all means look for the news, but do not treat it as a piece of semi-fiction or an exercise in the journalism. As Professor Sawer says: “The newspapers which new have made a fashion of slick and humorous journalese in reporting of police court cases are able to do so only as a result of the great experience and under constant supervision of legal advisers;for this style it is also desirable to pick victims who will probably relish such treatment or will not have the money to take action against it. It would not be possible to defend such reports as fair and accurate, since they are so obviously intended not for public information but for public entertainment.”
- Report with caution the opening addresses of counsel. If they seem to be making outlandish claims of future evidence or testimonies, it could be that their witnesses may not swear up to the counsel’s claims. It is hard then to back down and tell you readers that evidence, which was promised, has not been forthcoming after all.
Self Assessment Exercise 2.1
Buy a newspaper in your locality. Look for three court reports. Cross check the principles and rules of court reporting in those reports you have read. Note your observations and record them for your use.
The standard rules governing Court reporting must be observed by the reporter so that his career will not be jeopardised.
In this unit, you have learnt that:
- Court reporting is a professional right and that in the court of law, you have no special right to get any information which could not be made available to non journalism trained person, also in the court warm.
- The judge reserves the right to allow or disallow the publication of any part of the trial, including names of witness and their address.
- Court reporting requires some basic rules, which include; being careful with the names of persons involved in the case, seeking explanation for facts or terminologies you do not understand well etc.
6.0 TUTOR MARKED ASSIGNMENT
Write a full report of an aspect of trial involving well-known public officers in your state or locality.