Friday, 2 March 2012

"The clients don't want you in there" - Glasgow's most secretive courts

by Tristan Stewart-Robertson, @SRTristan

THE clerk of the tribunals recognised me. He should - I may be the only reporter who visits.
My reappearance at the First-Tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum) on March 2, 2012 was my first since September 2007 when it was then called the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.
Since then, it appears the appeals are anonymised on application, and the overall system seems even more secretive.
The clerk went and asked a handful of clients for upcoming hearings if they would mind a reporter in the room, and all objected. As far as he was concerned, that was the end of it.
He said of the first appellant: "The client says she would feel uncomfortable with a reporter in court. If the case went against them, they could cite that as a factor."
Except it is an open court system, as I pointed out, and it is Open Justice Week, of which he was aware.
The clerk called his boss and I was then ushered to Hearing Room 1. The defence lawyer objected, everyone went out and I assured the solicitor that I would not be identifying his client. Judge Anne McGavin said she had no objection to my presence.
So we proceeded.  
The tribunal system for asylum and immigration cases, sitting a floor above three floors for employment tribunals in Glasgow, is one of the hardest systems on which to report.
Solicitors, who you might think enjoy publicity, can rarely comment on cases lest the Home Office exacts revenge on their clients. It is a genuine concern. The decisions themselves are sent to the client in writing weeks after public hearings - the tribunals are public, but the decisions are private. That makes reporting on complete cases very difficult.
For those reporters covering such cases, a few times a decade, there are persistent professional and ethical questions worth asking. It took a call to the Tribunals Service press office to obtain the guidance on the "reporting restrictions" now tagged to each asylum case (the names were published in full previously, despite the rules supposedly made in 2005). Applications for anonymity are made at the point of appeal "where public knowledge of the person or the case might impact on that person's protected rights". However, exclusion of the public should be "rare". The clerk's position that my presence could be a "factor" refers to potential publication in the UK causing risk of harm in their home country, which they could then use as grounds to appeal a rejected appeal [see reference to a "sur place claim" in the reporting restrictions document].
I note there is no entry at all in the most recent Scots Law for Journalists referring to the immigration and asylum section of the tribunals.
There are cases before tribunals where appellants have claimed they were victims of rape and torture in their country of origin. Had such crimes taken place in the UK, they would be afforded automatic anonymity. But that is not true in the First-Tier tribunals - it must be applied for.
All that said however, the possibility that an individual was a rape or torture victim might justify automatic anonymity applied by the press, regardless of any lack in legal position. There is a clash between the need to report openly, fairly and accurately, and the need for possible extra protections for those within the system.
None of that journalistic debate removes the basic need for the tribunal system to have journalistic presence, nor justifies any exclusion of the press.
During a case I sat in on back in 2007, the Home Office representative said to an appellant: "Well why would anyone think you're a lesbian? You've got two kids."
In another Home Office representative did not accept that a Scottish man had cancer based on his evidence to the tribunal.
Those sorts of questions, the frequently dramatic human stories being examined and the eventual decisions on whether they are true or not, are all worthy of scrutiny. 
The tribunal system was one of the main reasons I went freelance in 2008. A part of the justice system unseen by the public or at the very least journalists, is a dangerous concept and unnerves me as a devoted defender of the principle, "Justice must be done and justice must be SEEN to be done".
But there is no market for tribunal stories about asylum seekers, refugees or immigration, particularly when those involved are anonymised and the decisions unknown. That is the overriding problem with new journalism, or citizen journalism or even the holier-than-thou data journalism - covering obscure courts and tribunals dealing with people largely considered illegitimate by the wider press does not pay.
Even if it's only once a year during an Open Justice Week, challenging the immigration and asylum section of the tribunals service would seem an essential public duty. 

Tristan Stewart-Robertson's site can be accessed here [W5 Press Agency]
Copyright remains with the Author.

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