With the beginning of Open Justice week less that 8 days away, Gordon Darroch has kindly created this excellent guide to court reporting. It is pretty comprehensive but if there is anything you are unsure of please leave a comment or email us
A beginner’s guide to court reporting
Reporting on a court case is a lot less daunting than it sounds. The silk gowns, leatherbound ledgers and legal language can seem forbidding to outsiders, but courts are public spaces and with a few exceptions, anyone can attend and report on proceedings.
The laws covering court reporting are mostly there to safeguard the accused’s right to a fair trial. Essentially, the law says that what you write must be a fair and accurate summary of what happens in court. If you stick by this basic rule, you are unlikely to go far wrong.
Going to court
You can look up lists of cases on the Scottish Courts website (http://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/rolls/index.asp), although this doesn’t give you much more than the names of the accused or parties in civil actions. If you know any lawyers, they might be able to tell you about a case that’s coming up. Otherwise, the reception desk will be able to advise you on which cases are being heard.
You will get more out of the day if you know what kind of case you want to see. At the High Court in Glasgow or Edinburgh, you could spend a day at an ongoing criminal trial. Lower down, a sheriff might hear an assault case in a day or two. Or you could watch a batch of eviction cases (at the sheriff court) or traffic offences (at the JP court).
Make yourself known to a court official when you arrive. The clerk will be able to advise you on the day’s business and let you know if there are any restrictions on reporting a case (see below). Ask to see or have a copy of the charge sheet, which tells you who is on trial and what they are accused of. You should include these details in your report.
It’s a good idea to turn up at least 10 minutes before the court sits so you can speak to the clerk. If this isn’t possible, the lunch break is usually a good time to grab a word with them. Most courts begin at 10am. At the High Court and larger sheriff courts allow extra time to get through security checks.
When the judge or sheriff comes into the courtroom, stand up. You can sit down again once they have.
Switch your mobile phone off, along with any other device that might make a noise in court. Judges do not take kindly to being interrupted by electronic bleeps.
Dos and don’t of court reporting
The basic principle of court reports is that they should be a fair and accurate summary of proceedings. This is particularly important if a jury is sitting - anything that might influence their decision in a case risks being in contempt of court.
Take written notes in court. However, recording equipment is forbidden, as are cameras. Making sketches is not allowed either - court artists have to do their drawings from memory outside the courtroom.
Report anything that is said in open court (in a jury trial, that means when the jury are in their seats). Attribute everything as much as possible - distinguish what lawyers say from what witnesses say. The judge or sheriff can ask questions of the witness too. Lawyers sometimes ask very pointed leading questions: “That’s a lie, isn’t it?” As long as you make an accurate record of what is said, you can report it freely.
Summarise. If you can take down quotes verbatim, so much the better. But a court report is not meant to be an exhaustive record. As long as what you write fairly represents what has been said, you will be on safe ground.
Describe how witnesses are dressed and how they act. If a witness starts shouting or bursts into tears, it’s fine to report it. However, be wary of making subjective judgements, especially when an accused person is giving evidence. You should not, for instance, say that somebody has a ‘shifty demeanour’ as this implies guilt.
Identify defendants and witnesses by name - with certain restrictions, such as children under 16 and victims in cases of rape and sexual assault. Although newspapers almost always do identify people who appear in court, it’s not required by law. If you’re not sure, leave it out. If you do identify someone, check you spell their name correctly and add their age and where they live (this is to stop people with the same name complaining they have been defamed). Witnesses’ details are sometimes protected, in which case their address is given in court as ‘care of the police’.
You must not:
Report anything that is said while the jury are out of the room. If you see them go out, put your pen away. You can report these arguments after the trial has finished, but it very rarely adds anything.
Include material you have found through your own research. If you succumb to the temptation to google a name, keep the information to yourself. You must limit your reporting to what is said in court.
Identify jurors in any way. It’s all right to say how many men and women are on the jury, but don’t go into any further detail.
Speak to jurors. This applies even after a case has finished. Even if they approach you, you are still in contempt if you discuss the case with them as a reporter.
Identify children under 16, or alleged victims in cases of rape or sexual assault, or anybody whose name is protected by a court order.
Use tape recorders or cameras.
Send text messages or make phone calls from the courtroom.
A court report should also include:
The location and type of the court (e.g. Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, The High Court in Glasgow).
The name of the judge, sheriff or magistrate.
The name of the defendant(s), their age and address (this may be a prison).
Details of the charge(s) they face.
Whether they have pleaded guilty or not guilty (if they’re on trial, they’ll have pleaded not guilty).
The line ‘The trial continues’ if the case is carrying on the next day.
The courtroom (with a guide to correct terminology)
The judge or sheriff sits up on the bench at the far end of the court. The clerk sits in front of the bench at the head of a large square table with the two legal teams on either side. In High Court criminal trials, the prosecution is led by an advocate-depute, who will examine witnesses on behalf of the crown. At the sheriff court, this job is done by the procurator fiscal. The accused (the word ‘defendant’ isn’t used in Scotland) sit in the dock, behind the table. If there is more than one person on trial, there may be several defence agents.
Barristers do not appear in Scottish courts - defence lawyers are either advocates (at High Court level) or solicitors (in lower courts, though you sometimes see advocates here too).
Witnesses give evidence from the witness box. They begin by taking the oath or affirming (a non-religious alternative). Prosecution witnesses will first be questioned by the advocate-depute or procurator fiscal, then cross-examined by the defence before being re-examined by the prosecution. For witnesses called by the defence, the roles are reversed.
Juries in Scottish criminal trials are made up of 15 people, not twelve as in England and the US. After hearing the evidence they deliberate in private, in the jury room, before coming back with a verdict. There are three possible verdicts - guilty, not guilty and not proven. Both of the last two mean that the defendant has been acquitted.
Sentencing does not always happen straight away. Especially in more complex cases, judges and sheriffs will commission reports on the accused’s circumstances before they pass sentence at a later hearing.