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Saturday, 19 October 2013

Note Taking in Court

An increasing number of the anti-BBC/TV Licensing community are heading to their local Magistrates' Courts to watch TV Licensing in action.

It's not pretty viewing, but it is any person's right to go and observe TV Licensing proceedings in open court. Sadly, in our experience, there are a lot of Justices and Court Clerks that struggle to distinguish their arse from elbow when it comes to observers taking notes from the public gallery. 

Indeed, we are aware of cases where members of the public have been told to stop making notes and threatened with removal from court - even contempt of court charges - if they do not stop their note taking.

We have never doubted the legal right to take notes from the public gallery, so seeking to clarify the situation we made a Freedom of Information Act request to HM Courts and Tribunal Service.

Our request read as follows:

"Please provide all information HMCTS holds about members of the public taking contemporaneous notes as they observe court proceedings from the public gallery.

"I am referring to notes made manually with pen and paper. I am also aware that it is a specific offence to make an electronic recording of any court proceedings without the court's permission.

"Ideally I'm seeking any sort of policy documentation that confirms that members of the public can make notes as they sit in the public gallery during an active court session."

HM Courts and Tribunal Service has replied with the following extract from a guidance document issued to all criminal court staff:

"It is accepted that justice is administered in open court where anyone present may listen to and report what is said. There can be no objection to note taking in the public gallery unless it is done for a wrongful purpose; for example, to brief a witness who is not in court on what has already happened. This may occur in the Crown Court, where witnesses who have yet to give evidence are usually kept out of court and in civil cases in which the judge has directed that a future witness should be out of court while other evidence is given, or the hearing is in chambers.

"Court staff need to be alert, but it is not for them to prohibit the practice. Courts should not place notices in the court building forbidding note taking. If any member of the court staff sees a member of the public taking notes and there is some reason to suspect it might be for an improper purpose, he or she should report the matter to the clerk of the court (or to the judge, if the clerk is temporarily absent) and ask for directions. The clerk should, if possible, make enquiries of the member of the public concerned or direct an usher to do so. If the result of the enquiry does not allay suspicion, the matter must then be reported to the judge.

"It is the responsibility of the clerk to ensure that enquiries are made politely, and without implying that the member of the public is necessarily doing anything wrong."

A copy of the HMCTS reply letter confirming the right to take notes in court is available to download here. Please print it off and take it with you when you visit court, just in case you are challenged on the legitimacy of your note taking.

4 comments:

TV Licensing Watch said...

The seemingly inexhaustible capacity Courts staff and private security staff to "make it up as they go along" and prohibit perfectly legitimate activity is nothing short of disgraceful.

The whole point of having the Public Gallery is to make the administration of justice "transparent" to the public so that people can see justice (or injustice) being done.

The trouble is people see a uniform or Courts staff and meekly back down immediately rather than point out that the public have every right to make contemperaneous notes. That's what journalists have to do and journalists are permitted to do so then so is everyone else.

Matt Williams said...

There's a decent head attending Danny Allen's case on the 5th November. I will be taking notes in the court and reporting back here and chatting with some high profile resistors outside the court. I shall of course try and engage Capita on a professional level but somehow I can't see them wishing to interact with me, can't think why not though :)

admin said...

Thanks for your comment Matt. We'll be with you in spirit and look forward to receiving your "field report" afterwards.

Anonymous said...

You should consider setting up a kickstarter to pay a legal firm to take this to court. If you can get even a small proportion of your traffic to pay £5 and can get the other major sites on board, you might be on to something.