Cambridge Court Usher Defies Lord Chief Justice on Transparancy


Wednesday, September 5th, 2012. 1:35pm


Inside Cambridge Magistrate's Court

Inside Cambridge Magistrates’ Court (source)

In December 2011 the Lord Chief Justice reportedly said

“Twitter as much as you wish”,

when issuing Practice guidence on live, text-based forms of communications (including Twitter) from court for the purposes of fair and accurate reporting.

However in practice it does not appear to be possible to routinely report court proceedings live via Twitter in Cambridge. Despite the clear guidance I have not yet reported live via twitter or in any other manner from within a court in session. One reason for this is that there’s not been a local case I’ve been in a position to cover in such a manner, and another is the problem that the courts in Cambridge are clearly not keen on operating in an open and transparent manner and there is a very real risk of being sent to the cells if magistrates rule an action amounts to contempt.

On the 28th of August 2012 I was not even tweeting and the court was not even in session, when an usher who gave her name as Pauline Abbott when I asked for it, approached the public seating area in court 2 of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court and ordered me to turn my phone off. The usher told the clerk that she had given me the order, and the clerk supported her saying “you can’t do that in court”.

I was sitting in the public seating while magistrates had retired to consider the admisibility of “bad character” evidence relating to third parties involved in the trial of local councillor Shona Johnstone. During this break in proceedings I had taken my phone out and reported that the case involving Cllr Johnstone was in fact being heard. Cambridge Magistrates do not publish their court lists online, and often trial dates change after they have been set.

Clearly if ushers and clerks are going to ban the use of phones, even to tell the time!, in the public seating in court then live reporting of a case is not going to be possible until the practices of the ushers and clerks changes. It may be this case results in the Lord Chief Justice upgrading his “practice guidance” to a formal “practice direction” to ensure its intent takes effect.

One particularly troubling aspect of the mobile phone ban imposed on me, was that it was only imposed on me. When Cllr Johnstone returned to the court to await the return of the magistrates she began using her phone. I pointed this out to the usher Pauline Abbott and asked why Cllr Johnstone was not being treated in the same way as I was. Usher Abbott looked flustered, and was not prepared to tackle Cllr Johnstone, who was allowed to continue using her phone; she claimed at this point that it had “been reported” that I was tweeting while the court was in session and that was her reason for ordering me to turn my phone off. As this was only raised later I wonder if it is true.

In my view defendants should have access to their phones, laptops, etc. in court during adjournments and while magistrates have retired (as well as in police custody, and court cells), in the interests of justice to enable them to properly prepare their case and for example to research matters raised. Those observing court, the general public, police officers, journalists and others should in my view be allowed to have phones which they can operate in silent mode – to keep in touch with work and families. If entering court means cutting off all communications with the outside world that would I think reduce the accessibility of the court to many who might otherwise observe.

Other notes

I have been reliably informed by Cllr Victor Lucas that the magistrates court sat until 6pm, later than usual, in order to conclude Cllr Johnstone’s trial. Cllr Lucas was present to act as give a statement of Cllr Johnstone’s good character. Again this raises the question of if this would have been done for anyone else, and if this was another area where as a local bigwig Cllr Johnstone got special treatment.

The abbriviated list on the notice board at the court for court one listed a case where both the defendant and the prosecutor was East Cambridgeshire District Council. It appears this was an incomplete listing, hiding the names of a series of individuals being prosecuted by the council; again I am concerned this is not in the interests of open justice. I have previously observed a case not listed on the public noticeboard.

Cllr Lucas said he had sought to find details of the data and time of Cllr Johnstone’s case online, but he had not been able to find it, he had instead found one of my articles pushing for such information to be made available.

A decision on adjourning Cllr Johnstone’s case for a period (while a magistrate went home for unstated personal reasons) was apparantly made and announced to the court by the clerk, I felt the magistrates failed to take control of, and make clear they had responsibility for, this key judicial decision.

Usher Pauline Abbott turned away an individual seeking to deliver copies of documents to court which he wanted to ensure had been delivered, not wishing to trust the post; she refused, on behalf of the court, to accept the document insisting post was the only way to deliver documents. I thought this was wrong, inappropriate and dismissive.

The prosecution solicitor had been informed of the mobile phone ban, and had been wrongly told it was due to tweeting from court. He said (to the room while awaiting the return of the magistrates) this was “a bit of drama” but wasn’t as exciting as when the freemen of the land turn up, as they don’t recognise the courts.

I would suggest that magistrates might benefit from observing proceedings from the public side of the courts. As well as matters I’ve noted they will also see issues with access to the duty solicitors, issues getting translators, the often ludicrous and inconsistent security theater, they may also be as surprised as I was at the degree of power exercised by the clerks in their absence – even going so far as decisions on the freedom or otherwise of those held in the cells (eg. deciding to release individuals when it transpires no case is going to be brought against them).

Community Safety Partnership

In Cambridge the Community Safety Partnership is a body on which magistrates are represented which meets in public, and has a public speaking slot. I have used this in the past to suggest publication of the court list and register, however despite my provision of counter examples they appear to have accepted the local magistrate’s position this is impossible.

There is a meeting of the community safety partnership scheduled for the 7th of September I have submitted the following for as a public question / statement.

  • I note the elected Cambridge City Councillor, Cllr Bick, and the magistrates representative, have been absent from the last two meetings of the partnership. The last meeting of the partnership took place without any elected councillors present. When key groups are not represented the partnership’s meetings are not in my view as effective as they could be. I would like to suggest the partnership seeks to ensure representatives do attend, and makes clear to the public and the member organisations when they do not. Perhaps meeting papers could clearly list absentees. The partnership could write to, or use the public speaking slot at meetings of the missing partners, to note the absences and encourage attendance, greater use of deputies/alternates could also be made.
  • I have previously used the partnership’s public question slot to ask for greater openness from our local courts, and have expressed my disappointment at the partnership’s apparent acceptance of the local magistrates’ position that getting the local court lists and registers proactively published online is “impossible”. I think public courts are a key and essential part of our justice system and simply having the doors open is not enough; it needs to be possible to find out when cases are to be heard, and for them to be reported on in accordance with the law. I would like to draw the partnership, and particularly the magistrates’ attention to the following things I have observed:
    • I have been ordered by usher Pauline Abbott, supported by a clerk, to turn my phone off while sat in the public seating while magistrates had retired to consider a decision. I think this is inappropriate, and would be inappropriate even while court was in session as the Lord Chief Justice has encouraged live court reporting and stated:
      the use of an unobtrusive, hand held, silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is generally unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice.

      I was particularly concerned that the usher only applied her ban to me, and not Cllr Johnstone and wonder why the councillor and police authority member was not subject to the same ban as I was.

    • I have observed cases not being listed on the noticeboards in the court foyer, one example was a hearing involving Mr Jacob Wills and Mr Curtis-Watson on the 17th of November 2011 which was not listed, but an usher told me was happening when I asked, and on the 28th of August a series of defendants being prosecuted by East Cambridgeshire District Council were not listed (the list showed the council as both prosecutor and defendant).
    • I have observed a case involving a defendant aged 29 referred to a youth court (co-defendants were under eighteen) this has the effect of taking the case into private – which should not in my view have happened.
    • Full court lists, including the charges, dates of birth of defendants etc. are not generally freely available in the court. I have been lent a copy once, but generally I have been told too few have been printed and there are none spare to offer me, or that they are simply not available.
  • I note the partnership has arranged a meeting which clashes with a full meeting of Cambridgeshire Police Authority; which I suspect may give a number of attendees, including Police and Crime panel member designate Cllr Bick, and Police Authority member Cllr Wilkins, a dilemma over which to attend.

7 comments/updates on “Cambridge Court Usher Defies Lord Chief Justice on Transparancy

  1. Bill Ellson

    The phrase “Twitter as much as you wish” was aimed at the journalists in court to hear the Lord Chief Justice announce the Practice Guidance.

    Both the Practice Guidance and the Guardian article make very clear that members of the public who wish to tweet must seek permission from the court in advance.

  2. Rex_imperator

    The courts regularly work well beyond 1730 or 1800 when a specific case or volume of cases require. I have personally sat till 2100. Nothing special that day just too much work!

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    I wasn’t asked if I was a journalist; the practice guidance does not refer to journalists as a special class but does single out “a representative of the media or a legal commentator” who it says ought be allowed to tweet without making an application.

    I have publicly declared myself to be a legal commentator; I often comment on legal matters so I must be – the term isn’t defined in any way other than its natural language meaning anywhere.

    I would like to see more clarity in the practice direction which I hope will now soon be issued.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    The Community Safety partnership have dismissed my suggestion that they make clear when people are absent from their meetings, saying:

    The Chair pointed out that apologies were always noted at the beginning of each
    meeting and recorded in the minutes. Members were already aware that if they were unable to
    attend, that they send a deputy, wherever possible.

    The Community Safety Partnership rejected my comments on the openness of the courts system, saying:

    Response: The Chair was advised that Mr Taylor should address the concerns stated to Mr David
    Ratcliffe, The Justices’ Clerk, HM Court Service, Bury St. Edmunds Magistrates’ Court, Shire Hall,
    Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk IP33 1HF.,

    There is no indication why they are suggesting I ought contact the court in Bury St Edmunds about problems in Cambridge. I’m baffled, and in any case I want to lobby in public.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      As of the July 2013 Community Safety Partnership a reply was still being awaited. The item keeps appearing as an unresolved action point which is commendable (in many committees such things get forgotten).

      The issue of the magistrates failing to attend was mentioned in the CSP meeting papers; they have not turned up for quite some time and are now, according to the papers, considering if they are going to bother at all despite being members of the partnership.

      The partnership has decided not to record in their minutes when the magistrates, or other members, are absent without sending apologies – which hides their absence from members of the press and public, as well as perhaps councillors, casually reading the meeting papers.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    A local reporter has been experiencing similar problems those I experienced at Cambridge Crown Court:

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