'In the Nineties, judges were much scarier.' Oli Scarff/Getty Images

February 8, 2024   5 mins

In truth, the old maxim that justice “must be seen to be done” has nothing to do with the rights of spectators or reporters in court. It comes from a judgement established in 1924 during a dangerous driving case, in which one of the judge’s clerks worked for a firm who was also suing the driver in his personal capacity. While the clerk was exonerated of having leant on the judges, the sentence was quashed simply because the Lord Chief Justice thought that it had the potential appearance of malfeasance.

A century later, the question of whether we the people have a right to know about justice remains unresolved. Despite our obsession with “transparency”, it is becoming increasingly hard to know what is going on inside Britain’s courts.

“Atrocious”, was how the chair of the Bar Council described our justice system earlier this week, in an interview with the Financial Times. But just how “atrocious” is impossible to glean. Over the past decade, court reporting has withered as funding dries up. And no company embodies this more than Court News UK, the last court reporting agency to operate from the Old Bailey, where I’ve spent the past three months following their reporters for a podcast documentary.

“There are huge black spots now,” says Guy Toyn, co-owner of Court News UK. “London is still fairly well covered. But go up to cities as big as Birmingham, or Nottingham, and there just isn’t anyone there to see what’s going on. Let alone regional courts.”

For the last 25 years, Court News UK has been run by two reporters, Toyn and Scott Wilford. In the early days, they worked from a “windowless basement” bursting with at least three other press agencies, several photographic agencies, and dedicated court reporters from the likes of The Telegraph, The Times and The Sun. “It felt like a Fleet Street annexe,” says Wilford. They wrote up reports, then sold them to national and local papers. “At one point we had 10 reporters and two photographers. You could literally get an order from anywhere — I think there’s a newspaper up in the Orkneys that was one of our clients. They all had budgets. All these local papers around London had budgets. So you’d have a running list of seven or eight murder trials and be thinking: God, how am I going to service all this

What happened next is a familiar story. First the internet, then social media, blew up their model. By the late 2000s, national papers began to cut costs, and local ones mostly went bust, folded into bigger consortiums that stripped out most of the on-the-ground reporting and stuffed what remained with clickbait. Court News’s rivals all went bankrupt. The staff of 12 at Court News shrunk to four. Increasingly, the recruits are smart first-jobbers, who can make do with the meagre pay.

The world, in other words, moved on. Much of the journalism that has passed into history isn’t worth sentimentalising, any more than the passing of the lead presses that used to rumble the pavements of Fleet Street. But court reporting is not like most other journalism. It is an almost artisanal trade that relies upon reporters trained in shorthand and familiar with contempt and libel laws, who sit at the back of cases for hours while arcane points of law are expounded, spooling out pages of notes. Whereas many media businesses were supplanted by slicker models enabled by the internet, in court reporting there is simply no alternative to being there. The legal fraternity and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) are not going to provide the information, let alone parse it.

This is because the legal world is curiously insular. The courts tend to treat any spectators as an unfortunate nuisance. For the English and Welsh system, there is one rudimentary website that lists the following day’s court schedule by the names of the defendants. It gives no sense of the charges. And it is subject to change. In fact, it is common to turn up at the appointed place at the right time and be greeted by an empty room — the proceedings were probably moved, but no one bothered to tell the non-lawyers. For court reporters, the only way to receive a full list of the charges ahead of time is still to seek out the judge’s clerk, ask for them in person, and hope that the clerk is well-disposed.

Lawyers have little incentive to fill in the gaps. Even policemen — once happy to have a quiet word with the press about a particular case — are increasingly mute, tied down by the politics of their press offices. There is also no way of obtaining trial information after the fact. As the BBC recently acknowledged, it is impossible to request a court transcript in this country unless you have several thousand pounds to hand. As recently as 2011, stenographers sat on every bench. In a charmingly English way, they were effectively privateers — you could approach them directly, and purchase from them a copy of the official record. But a modernisation wave swept all that away: today, court proceedings are recorded, but the recordings are property of the MoJ. Because it is illegal for private citizens to possess audio of a trial, obtaining a transcript requires hiring a transcription service, which would have to type up weeks of proceedings, with the bill dumped at your door. One rape victim was quoted £7,500.

This matters, not only because of the problem of informational black spots across the land, but because right now court reporters should also be bringing us news on the overall decline of the justice system. On this, the Court News owners agree: in all their 30-odd years of experience, the system has never before been this slow or this useless. “When I started in the Nineties, judges were much scarier. Dickensian, even,” Wilford says. “But they got things done, and there was no messing around. All these murder cases would tend to open on a Monday morning. Now, the whole process seems to have slowed down, so nothing ever seems to start on a Monday. Excuses are made, and then you still find yourself waiting for cases to start on a Wednesday. I think the public would probably be staggered to see how slowly it moves. There always seems to be some kind of administrative blunder in the offing, or prisons don’t seem to produce defendants when they should. Always something.”

One afternoon, during the months I spent in their office, a Court News staffer came back fuming about the sentencing of a Tunisian illegal migrant who slashed his 19-year-old girlfriend’s throat. The trial concluded; he was found guilty. But arriving at the court, the reporter found that sentencing had been delayed for three months, and no one could work out why.

Wilford would often turn the air blue as fresh court dates rolled in, incensed by judges booking in hearings for 2026. In September 2023, I witnessed the sentencing of the accomplices of the crooked cop Frank Partridge, where an apologetic Judge Christopher Hehir gave all the guilty a sixth off their tariff — because their case had been pending since 2015.

Eddie Beaver, who Court News recruited straight from university 18 months ago, agrees that the system is broken. “If I can think of an example that perfectly encapsulates the current attitude of judges, it was when I saw an email that a member of court staff had received at the Old Bailey, and it said the Old Bailey is going to have a ‘new culture’. One where cases will be dealt with swiftly: there will be no dithering. With the caveat that: ‘We will begin to implement this new culture in three months’ time

Many blame budget cuts for the collapse of the justice system. During the Coalition years, the low-priority Ministry of Justice was chopped by around 25% in real terms. “But people have always blamed funding,” Toyn points out. “Ever since I’ve been here, there’s never been enough money. The difference is this: a few years ago, if you had some sort of ridiculous delay, the judge would be extremely angry. I remember a judge — I think his name was Stokes. When the barrister used to come in and say, oh, you know, this isn’t ready, he’d say, exasperated, ‘Caaaaaan we get onnnnn
’ And these barristers would be absolutely terrified, quaking in their boots. Nowadays, it’s all very laid back.”

And with 11 justice secretaries in 14 years, it’s not a problem the Government seems interested in resolving. “It’s just not sexy, is it?” says Beaver. “No one ever got elected on a promise to make the courts work faster.” But is that any excuse? After all, justice should be seen to be done — even if it’s not being done very well.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.