Editor’s comment: We shouldn’t have to beg for information
- Credit: Polly Hancock
Gone are the days when a reporter would be stationed at every court in London.
They are lost to the ravages of a shrinking industry that no longer has the time or resources to dispatch staff members for entire days to stuffy waiting rooms on spec. Nor, post-Leveson, do papers (generally) have hacked police radios or 30 cops on Christmas lists and speed dial to keep them abreast of local crimes and cases.
That means we have to be smarter about how we cover court to avoid too much of a vacuum in accountability: and for the most part, we do alright. It means, in part, scouring daily and weekly court lists and obsessively remembering to call clerks and prosecutors to ensure we know about outcomes and follow-up hearings.
But this isn’t our biggest obstacle in covering the court system: rather, that is the suspicion and unhelpfulness with which we are sometimes greeted by those who work within it.
This week, the day after attending Tyrone Givans’ inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court, we rang the coroner’s office to ask whether a verdict had been reached – a perfectly routine question. On our second or third attempt to elicit information, we were told a narrative verdict had indeed been returned – meaning Mary Hassell had prepared a statement detailing how Mr Givans died – but that we couldn’t have it. Eventually, 24 hours later, after harassing everyone we could find, we were sent the document by a helpful assistant.
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Were this a one-off I’d have chalked it down to (in)experience. But in recent years, coroners and their officers and assistants have refused to give us determinations, witness statements, spellings of witnesses’ names (even when we have physically seen them giving evidence), names of the deceased. Partly, we’re told, it’s the fault of antiquated computer systems, but both they and staff training are someone’s responsibility.
It is as though open justice is something for us (and by extension the public) to beg or borrow rather than a principle for which Ms Hassell has as much responsibility as we do. Yet there is manifestly a public interest in inquests, as our coverage of the case demonstrates.
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Blockading information from the press undermines that; I hope this is the last time I have cause to write about it.