Chapter 65: Practical court reporting

This is the second of three chapters on court and legal reporting. In the previous chapter we considered why it is important for court cases to be reported, and how to do it safely and properly. In this chapter we look at how to write reports that are accurate, fair and interesting. In the next and final chapter on court reporting we follow a legal case through from beginning to end.

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How to report a court case

The job of court reporting is essentially the same for all the media - newspapers, radio and television - but there are some differences. We shall first consider those differences, and then move on to the things they share in common.

Newspapers

For every court case which you report, the following information should be carried in each report:

  • The names, addresses and places of origin of all defendants (plus ages, if considered important)
  • The offence or offences they are charged with
  • The plea of each defendant to each charge - guilty or not guilty
  • The court where the case is being heard

If a case lasts for five days, five weeks or five months, these details should be included in your report each time. The precise address details will vary from one newspaper to another. For example, some newspapers like to give the address accurate to the house number in the street whereas others – perhaps national newspapers – may only name the town or village.

In addition, you should give the following information if possible:

  • The name of the judge or magistrate hearing the case, especially when reporting the verdict or sentence
  • The names of the prosecution and defence lawyers

You must also give the names and other personal details of all witnesses whose evidence you quote in your report.

Every report must also carry:

either the court's verdict; the sentence, or the information of when sentence is to be passed

or, if the case is not finished, the words "The case continues". Whatever else is cut out by sub-editors from a court report (and such cuts should only ever be done with extreme care), these three words should always be left as the final words of the report of an unfinished case

The rest of the report will be an account of the day's proceedings, quoting what was said by those who spoke - lawyers, the judge, witnesses.

Radio and television

Court reports for radio and television cannot be as long as court reports in newspapers. This means that they must give fewer details, in order to concentrate on the story.

  • The details which you will need to give are:
  • The names of all defendants, and briefly where they come from
  • The offence or offences they are charged with, simplified as far as possible
  • The plea of each defendant to each charge - guilty or not guilty
  • The court where the case is being heard

As with newspapers, it is important to let your listeners know if the case has not yet finished. Instead of "The case continues", however, it sounds more natural to say "The case is continuing". These should be the last words of your report.

All journalists

Whether you are reporting for a newspaper, radio or television station, your report must be accurate, and it must be fair, but it does not have to be boring. Do not lose your judgment of what is news.

Court cases are full of the stories of dramatic events, but courts like to hide the drama. It is your job to see the drama which lies behind the serious and dignified proceedings, and convey that to your readers or listeners.

The intro

Your intro on a case which has finished should always focus on the crime rather than on the court case.

If a man who was once a policeman is sent to jail for a year for obtaining money by false pretences, your intro should report the offence. The punishment given to him can then be the second paragraph:

A former policeman pretended to be someone else to get $500 out of a savings fund.

Yesterday he was jailed for a year at the National Court.

Many young reporters find this strange. They think that the court's decision is much newer than the crime and that it should therefore be the intro. They are missing the point.

What is new is the fact that the former policeman committed the crime. Up until the moment he was found guilty, it was only an allegation. This is the first opportunity to say that this man did this wrong thing. That is the news and it must be your intro, unless the court's sentence is so unusual as to be more newsworthy than the crime itself.

Colour

Some court cases are more newsworthy than others. Some will involve a prominent public figure; others will deal with crimes which were widely reported at the time - a mass murder, for instance. Reporters usually want to add some colour to their reports of these big trials.

Colour in a news report means extra details which help the readers or listeners to visualise what happened - such as descriptions of the courtroom, of the people involved and how they spoke, and of the atmosphere. This is a good thing to do, but it must be done with great care.

Readers and listeners may be very interested to know what the defendant and the witnesses wore, and whether they appeared nervous or confident while giving evidence. However, none of this information is privileged, and it could be considered by the judge to be contempt of court (see Chapter 68).

You must take care that the colour which you introduce does not prejudice the trial. You can describe how the defendant twisted a handkerchief in her fingers while giving evidence, but if you say that she was nervous then you may imply that she was lying. You can say that the defendant cried while she was being cross-examined, but do not say so in a way which is designed to make the readers (and the jury) feel sorry for her.

Balance

A court case needs both sides of the case to be heard - the prosecution and the defence. Only then can the jury or the judge decide whether or not the defendant is guilty. If justice is to be seen to be done, any reports of that case must present a fair balance of both sides of the case.

If a case is heard all in one day (or all in one week, as far as a weekly newspaper is concerned), the report must carry both prosecution and defence cases, at roughly equal length. If the case lasts for a number of days, then roughly equal space must be given to the defence case as was given to the prosecution case.

It would not be fair to lead a page with 400 words while prosecution witnesses gave their evidence, and two days later carry only 150 words at the foot of the page while defence witnesses gave their evidence. Similarly, it would be unfair to give 60 seconds in each day's bulletin while the prosecution is presenting its case, but only 15 seconds each day while the defence is being presented.

Accuracy

If a report is not accurate, it is not privileged. So it is vital that an accurate note is taken of exactly what is said by the judge or magistrate, the lawyers and witnesses. Most countries do not allow journalists to use tape recorders inside court. For this reason, it is essential that court reporters can take shorthand at no less than 80 words per minute, and preferably 100.

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Special circumstances

Most court cases are just as we have already described them. However, there are a number of circumstances when the courts work in special ways, which affect the court reporter.

Remands

When accusations are made or charges are laid, they must proceed through the court system until the truth is discovered and a verdict is reached. But investigations may take a long time, documents have to be prepared and courts are busy places, so the accused person may need to have his case postponed to a later date. The process of legally postponing a court case is usually called a remand. It is a chance for the accused person to appear in public in court, so the community can see he is still both available and safe. For economy and convenience, remands normally take place in the lowest courts in the system, most usually in front of a magistrate. If the preparation for trial takes a long time, the accused may be remanded many times.

There are two main ways an accused person can be remanded: either in custody or released on bail, free to wait in the community.

  • Remands in custody are usually made if the magistrate thinks the person could commit another offence, run away or interfer with the legal process by harming witnesses. In many countries, the accused is kept in a remand centre, either within a larger prison or in a separate facility.
  • Release on bail is to allow the accused to go back out into the community to continue their normal life until the case is heard. This is usually chosen for minor crimes and low-risk cases. However, to encourage the accused to turn up for their court hearing, the magistrate may insist that they pay or promise to pay an amount of money, which they will lose (forfeit) if they fail to show up. This money is called surety, though in many countries the word also refers to the person who puts up the bail money. The magistrate may also impose other bail conditions, such as the accused must report regularly to police or hand in their passport to prevent them leaving the country.

Journalists are usually free to report on remand proceedings, including the bail conditions, although in some countries you may not be allowed to report the reasons why bail is refused. Check the situation in your country.

When reporting remands, remember that the person is still only accused - no decision has yet been made on whether they are guilty or innocent. Under most English-speaking legal systems, there is a presumption of innocence, which means that everyone should presume the accused is innocent unless and until a court decided otherwise. Be careful that your reports make this clear and do not imply that the person being remanded is guilty. Once a person has chosen to make a plea - either 'guilty' or 'not-guilty' - you should report this too in all your reports on the proceedings.

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Committal proceedings

Serious crimes, such as murder, rape or theft involving large sums of money, are tried in a higher court. Lesser crimes are tried in lower courts. Village courts and district courts are cheaper than national courts, so it makes sense to use them whenever appropriate.

Even for serious crimes, lower courts are used to take a look at the evidence first and decide whether there is a case for the defendant to answer. If there is, the magistrate will commit the defendant for trial at the higher court; if there is not, the magistrate may dismiss the case. The magistrate may decide that he or she can deal with it, and do so. In this way, the expensive higher courts are used only for those cases which need to be heard by them.

These hearings in the lower courts, to assess the evidence, are called committal proceedings.

There may be special dangers in reporting committal proceedings, because the things which are said in court may well be the substance of the trial when it comes to the higher court. In many countries, it is considered important that the media do not publish that evidence before it is presented in court. That could prejudice the defendant's chance of a fair trial.

You will need to check in your own country whether the reporting of committal proceedings is restricted. If it is, then even though committal proceedings are heard in public, all that may be reported is:

  • The name of the court and the name of the magistrate hearing the case
  • The names, addresses, ages, places of origin and jobs of the defendants and relevant witnesses
  • The offence or offences with which the defendants are charged (or a summary of them)
  • Names of lawyers or police prosecutors involved
  • The decision of the court
  • If a defendant is sent for trial, the court to which he is sent and the charges on which he is sent (which may be different from the original offence with which he was charged)
  • If the committal proceedings are adjourned, the date and place to which they are adjourned
  • Whether or not bail is granted (but not the reasons why bail is refused)
  • Whether legal aid has been granted, if there is a legal aid scheme

What may not be reported is any of the evidence given by any of the witnesses, or the submissions by the lawyers or police prosecutor, or any of the magistrate's comments.

A report of committal proceedings may be just the bare bones as outlined above and will not have the flesh put on it yet. That will come later, when the full trial is heard.

However, since these reporting restrictions are there to protect the defendant's rights, he may choose if he wishes to have the restrictions lifted. For example, he may consider that publicity will encourage new witnesses to come forwards, who may help him to prove his innocence.

If the defendant asks the magistrate for reporting restrictions to be lifted, and if the magistrate agrees - or if your country’s legal system allows general reporting of committals - then you can report the committal proceedings just like any other court case, with all the evidence, lawyers' submissions and magistrate's comments. If there is more than one defendant, only one of them needs to ask for reporting restrictions to be lifted and they will normally be lifted.

If the case is not sent for trial - if it is either dismissed, or dealt with on the spot by the magistrate - then the whole proceedings are complete. The case is no longer sub judice and you can carry a full report of the committal proceedings, with no restrictions.

If one defendant is dealt with on the spot by the magistrate (or released) while the others are sent for trial, then the situation is more complicated. You can report all the evidence which relates only to the case of the one person, to show the readers or listeners why he was treated differently. However, any evidence which relates also to the defendants who have been sent for trial may not be used in your report until their trial is over.

If the case is sent for trial, then once that trial in the higher court is finished you can report full details of all the evidence which was given at committal proceedings. In other words, committal proceedings are not secret; you are just prevented from reporting straight away the full details of what happens there. You may have to wait until the case is finished, so that you do not prevent the defendant having a fair trial.

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Children in court

Children sometimes behave so badly that they have to appear before the courts. Usually there are special courts for them, called children's courts or juvenile courts, although they may also appear before village courts or district courts.

In most countries, whichever court a child appears before, the same golden rule always applies:

You may never identify an accused child in a court report without special permission from the judge.

The reason for this is simple. Children are punished in order to make them behave better in future, not for revenge. It will not help them to stop being bad and become good citizens if they become known publicly as criminals.

The age at which young people legally stop being children or juveniles varies from country to country. Sometimes it is 16, 17 or 18, sometimes younger. You must check the legal age in your country.

It is not simply a matter of not naming a child; it is important that no information is given which would identify the child.

For example, to describe a child as "the nine-year-old son of a community school headmaster from Laho Village" identifies him just as precisely as if you had used his name. As a general rule, you can only use the child's age, sex and the general area he or she comes from. For example:

A ten-year-old Nadi girl ...

Sometimes two members of the same family appear in court together, charged with the same crime. One of them may be an adult and the other a child - father and son, for instance, or two brothers.

In such a case, you are allowed to name the adult, of course; but if you also say that the two are related, you will identify the child. There are two ways to report a case of this kind.

The first is not to report the relationship, but to call them "Bruce Maupiti, 28, of Avarua, Rarotonga, and a nine-year-old boy from Rarotonga." In this way the boy is not identified.

Sometimes, though, it is impossible to report the case without mentioning the relationship. In such a case, it is best not to name either the man or the boy, but to call them "a 28-year-old man from Rarotonga and his nine-year-old son."

The second restriction on reporting court cases involving children in many countries is that you may not give any of the evidence or the lawyers' submissions, or the magistrate's comments. All you may give is a summary of the charges and the court's decision. For example:

A ten-year-old Nadi girl was yesterday put on a good behaviour bond for one year for stealing a video recorder from a headmaster's house.

Finally for now, even in some countries where there are restrictions on identifying children accused of crimes, journalists are able to name or identify children who are taking part in court cases as witnesses or victims. Because of the differences between laws in different countries and because the consequences of a wrong decision of your part could be severe, you should check with experts in your country.

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Coroner's courts

Coroners are people who carry out inquiries on behalf of the State into the cause of sudden deaths, the cause of fires, missing people, accidents involving ships and other matters. They are usually magistrates and they carry out the duties of coroner along with their normal work.

An inquiry into the cause of a sudden death is known as an inquest.

The powers which a coroner has are the same as those which a magistrate has at committal proceedings. If the coroner finds at the end of an inquest that the person has been unlawfully killed, and that the evidence suggests it was done by a particular person, the coroner can commit that person to a higher court for trial.

As far as the court reporter is concerned, coroner's courts should be treated just like any court where a magistrate presides, where there are no reporting restrictions.

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Family courts

Marriage is a public thing, because people in a society need to know who is married to whom. In this way, social relationships can proceed properly.

Just as marriage needs to be public, so does divorce. People need to know when a marriage has ended, so that they know the legal status of the people involved, in just the same way as they need to know when a marriage has taken place.

Marriages which are made under law - as opposed to traditional customary marriages or de facto relationships of people just living together - can only be ended under law. The courts which decide whether there are reasons for ending a marriage are usually called Family Courts.

The reasons for a court to grant a divorce are typically that one partner has committed a matrimonial offence, such as adultery, cruelty (physical or mental), desertion for a stated period of time or persistent bad behaviour.

It is helpful if the results of divorce cases are reported, so that society knows who is married and who is not. It is also a matter of great public interest when a well-known figure is divorced, so it is a big news story. However, you will probably be unable to report any details of what happens in court.

Check in your own country what you are allowed to report; it may be just the court's decision, announcing that two people have been granted a divorce, the court which granted it and when.

In some countries, you are allowed to say who the witnesses were and give a brief statement of the charges, defences and counter-charges in support of which evidence is given, plus the judge's summing-up, his decision and any comments he may make when giving his decision.

In other countries, it may be possible to report divorce proceedings without any restrictions.

Family courts also hear cases involving children - typically custody orders and applications for adoption. The golden rule regarding children also applies here: they should not normally be identified. Indeed, in most countries, such hearings are conducted in camera.

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Indecent evidence

Some types of hearing may need the judge or magistrate to hear evidence which is intimate and may be indecent. For instance, a woman may seek a divorce on the grounds that her husband's sexual demands were cruel, and the judge will need to hear in some detail what those demands were, in order to decide whether they were cruel. Also, in a rape or sexual assault case, the evidence of a doctor who examined the victim after the assault may need to be heard.

You will not normally publish anything indecent in a court report, even if it was said in open court. If indecent evidence is given, you may report the fact that evidence was given, but not the details of that evidence. For example, you may say:

Mrs Bairiki described her husband's sexual demands, which she claimed were cruel.

Or you may say:

Dr Stephen Betio gave evidence regarding the physical condition of the victim after the alleged rape. He described her injuries in detail and said that these were consistent with violent sexual intercourse having taken place.

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In camera

In certain circumstances, the court may decide to hear evidence in camera. This is a Latin phrase which means literally "in the room", and in practice means "in private". No reporters or other members of the public are allowed into the courtroom while that evidence is heard.

Even if you somehow manage to find out what was said, you are not allowed to publish it.

A court will normally only hear evidence in camera if it involves national security, evidence or legal arguments which a judge does not want the jury to hear or in certain cases involving children.

TO SUMMARISE:

To ensure that defendants have a fair trial, there are some restrictions on court reporters:

  • You should not discuss the background to a case, or comment on a case, while it is sub judice
  • You may not be able to report committal proceedings in full
  • You cannot identify children involved in court cases without the court’s permission
  • You may not be able to report what happens in divorce cases
  • You cannot report any hearing that is in camera

Make court reports lively and interesting for the reader or listener

When somebody is found guilty, base the intro on the crime, not the verdict; if the sentence is very unusual, you may base the intro on that

This is the end of the second part of this three-part section on court reporting. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the third section, Chapter 66: Court reporting, a case in practice

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Index to Chapter 65
  1. How to report a court case
  2. Special circumstances
  3. Remands
  4. Committal proceedings
  5. Children in court
  6. Coroner's courts
  7. Family courts
  8. Indecent evidence
  9. In camera
  10. To summarise
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