Written evidence from Dr George Julian


ABOUT ME: I am a freelance knowledge transfer consultant and part time crowdfunded journalist (following years spent working as an academic, researcher and running a national network promoting the use of evidence to improve practice in health and social care).


I have a particular interest in open justice, and the interplay between it and what we know about the premature and preventable deaths of learning disabled and autistic people.


I use crowdfunding to cover my costs to attend coronial inquests and live tweet what is happening in court. I also report from pre-inquest review hearings and sometimes from completed inquests.


Since 2015 I have reported from numerous inquests, pre-inquest review hearings and related cases in the criminal courts. I have also live-tweeted cases from the Crown Court, High Court and Court of Appeal and reported (via social media) from the Court of Protection and Magistrates Court. I have also used social media to report on conduct hearings conducted by professional regulators. I will focus on reporting from coroners’ courts in this submission.




  1. How the media’s coverage of courts has changed, and what the implications are for open justice


Writing in the Justice Gap in 2017, The mysterious case of the vanishing court reporter, Brian Thornton had this to say about court reporting:


If journalists aren’t bothering to report on cases here [Winchester Crown Court], what about smaller crown courts? What about the magistrates and county courts? The coroners’ courts?


Every day in all these courts, all across the country, justice is being done. But the problem is that hardly anyone knows about it – because it isn’t being seen to be done. There is no one to bear witness, there is no one to tell the public about it”.



Thornton goes on to discuss the decline of court reporting and findings from his research (hopefully the committee will have access to researchers working in this space). The implication of this decline is clear:


It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the number of court stories in both national and regional newspapers is falling. If indeed this is the case it raises some very significant issues about the legal system in general, but specifically about the lack of oversight that the courts are subject to” (Thornton, 2017).


I have been reporting from courts since 2015 and often I am the only media representative present in court, especially at coroners’ courts.


On occasion court staff have been so surprised that there is a journalist present they’ve not known where to seat me, especially at pre-inquest review hearings where there tends to be more of an assumption that they’re not reportable “you realise it’s just a PIR” is a common refrain.


Occasionally there will be other media representatives present for the opening day, and the summing up/conclusion, but this is by no means guaranteed.


I am lucky that I generate my own funding, that allows me to attend for the entirety of an inquest; it is clear that most media organisations would not have the resource or capacity to attend court daily.


Although it is worth acknowledging that I suspect my ability to raise funds is also directly related to being able to use social media to report from court; it is the in-depth reporting that appears to be of interest to people.



  1. What barriers are there to the media obtaining information from the courts


The practice of sharing information about upcoming hearings in coroners’ courts is incredibly variable across the country. Some courts regularly and routinely make information available, others do not. Some courts have staff who are incredibly responsive and keen to help, others seem less well resourced, and it can be a lottery whether you receive a response to your email or an answer to your phone call.


One example of transparent and helpful information is Worcestershire Coroners’ Court, which has available on their website to download:





It can be difficult to follow a case through the coroners’ courts, often pre-inquest review hearings, and inquests themselves, are adjourned or moved at the last minute, and unless you are connected with the bereaved family or one of the legal representatives, it can be difficult to follow through its duration.


In a recent survey of journalists about their experiences of reporting from coroners’ courts during the pandemic https://www.georgejulian.co.uk/other-work/open-justice-coroners-courts-survey/ a number raised concerns about difficulty accessing listings, particularly at this time. A number of concerns were also raised about the difficulties in securing access to court, in person or remotely, at this time.



  1. What could be done to make information on court cases more transparent and accessible


I welcome the Committee’s focus on this area. Accessibility and transparency does seem to depend on the Court, in terms of what type of court and the individual court. I’ve had an exceptionally good experience from HMCTS staff while trying to follow a case through the Magistrates Court; the judge has been proactive in sharing an earlier ruling, the staff are responsive and provide video links to hearings and so on.


However, despite this, it still feels like a lottery as to whether I’ll be able to report as often ‘provisional’ dates for a next hearing are set in court, and then finalised between legal counsel and court staff afterwards, which can leave a member of the public/press out of the loop. The workaround is to remember to check CourtServe listings on a daily basis, however a publicly available subscription system that allowed interested parties (including members of the press and public) to subscribe to a court diary for a particular case would be exceptionally helpful. 


The live streaming of cases from courts is a great step towards improving transparency and accessibility, as is the ability to attend hearings remotely. The use of social media to report contemporaneously from courts (while observing the usual reporting rules) has the potential to increase accessibility to a much wider audience, than has happened previously.

The Chief Coroner’s Guidance note on Coroners and the Media, suggests that coroners will be guided by the important principle of open justice, and references the Court of Appeal case R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2012] EWCA Civ 420; [2013] which applies to all courts (including coroners’ courts). The opening remark to that case includes the following statement:


In a democracy, where power depends on the consent of the people governed, the answer must lie in the transparency of the legal process. Open justice lets in the light and allows the public to scrutinise the workings of the law, for better or for worse.


My experience is that social media is a key tool in letting in the light and allowing the public to scrutinise the workings of the law.



  1. The implications of social media for court reporting and open justice


I think that social media has the potential to make the courts much more accessible and transparent to a much more diverse audience than might access traditional media.


The call states that “the growth of social media as a means of reporting on court proceedings raises questions about how traditional rules for reporting are maintained”. It would be useful to understand what questions the committee are most concerned with.


Journalists’ must obey the law whether reporting contemporaneously or not, whether publishing via media, television, radio or social media.


In relation to reporting from coroners’ courts, I have made the personal decision not to report contemporaneously (via live tweeting) unless I have explicit permission of the bereaved family to do so; this is a personal choice but one I feel comfortable with.


When I am unable to make contact with a family, or do not have their explicit consent, then I report daily via a blog post. While this is still reporting, as allowed given the premise of open justice, it is obviously much less detailed in the amount of information that is shared.


I think that people are interested in the happenings of courts, and social media has the potential to make them much more accessible to a wider audience.


Contemporaneous reporting from the court room also allows for a level of scrutiny that would not be possible unless the public and press gallery was full. Comments and discussions often follow about the language used by the coroner or legal counsel, and the witness evidence given, a level of nuance that is unlikely to be picked up in a short piece in a local paper.


All of my work is crowdfunded, paid for by contributions from people who follow my reporting. I can safely say that if I were not able to publish using social media this in turn would not be possible, and this window into the happenings of coroners’ courts would stop.


Finally, earlier this year I worked with some learning disabled self-advocates, to co-produce information about coroners’ courts in Easy Read formats (written and videos) to make them easier to understand for learning disabled people, their carers and families https://inclusionnorth.org/our_work/stop-people-dying-too-young-the-leder-programme/.


It is clear that most courts are highly inaccessible for learning disabled people, and no doubt many other groups of citizens. It would seem to me that reporting via social media, especially where video reports are used, has the potential to increase accessibility.



  1. The effect of court reform and remote hearings on open justice


I have little to offer for this question as currently it seems somewhat unclear what the direct impact of these reforms will be on court reporting. Obviously there are a number of proposed changes to the coronial system in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill (Part 2, Chapter 4), including provision for the use of audio or video links at inquests.


It is proposed to amend Section 45 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to include:


provision for or in connection with the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images”.


This would clearly have the potential to make coroners’ courts much more accessible to people. However, it is currently unclear whether these changes would facilitate press and public to attend inquests remotely, or indeed what safeguards would be in place to ensure that remote access for some does not come at the cost of physical access for others.


October 2021