Written evidence from Duncan Gardham


I am a crime and security journalist, covering terrorism cases, for a variety of newspapers and broadcasters - mainly the Times, Daily Mail, and Guardian.


Court reporting has always been part of my job but in recent years I have found myself spending more time in courts as the law is used increasingly to tackle the problem of extremism.


When I first started out as a reporter, we were regularly sent across the road to the magistrates court by The Dewsbury Reporter to pick up the list and check through it for interesting cases. I suspect those days may be past.


When I graduated to the Yorkshire Post, Olwen Dudgeon was our indefatigable court reporter at Leeds Crown Court, sadly no longer on the staff.


At the Daily Telegraph, Sue Clough was the inimitable Old Bailey Correspondent, and an outstanding one at that. Of course, no longer a position on the paper.


So first, can I make a plea that court reporters, most of whom now dip in and out of courts, are given a proper place in the system.


I don't think that some judges understand the importance of open justice. When pushed, they will pay lip service to it but some don't seem to believe in the concept in practice.


It is telling that I am impressed when a judge not only cites the principles but follows them.


We are the public's eyes and ears and we are the way they see the judicial system and determine whether they have faith in that system.


If public trust collapses in the judiciary in the same way that it has in other areas of public life, they may well ask themselves what happened.


When I see models of courts or diagrams to show witnesses who is who, there is never any mention of the court reporter.


Many ushers and judges will make sure we are properly looked after but where that is not the case, it can only be because those individuals don't realise how important reporting is to public trust.


I don't blame them. Most will not consume media themselves any more and so they naturally distrust it. The world has changed, but we have to continue to fight for recognition of the importance of what we do.


In years gone by I would sit in frustration without access to documents put in front of the jury. I am afraid I make a nuisance of myself now, and if I don't get them, I am on my feet in front of the judge, not least because newspapers often cannot afford to instruct counsel.


It sometimes surprises the judge that I am prepared to do that - officially I have no "right of audience" - but I think that it is the right thing to do.


We are participants in the process and we should not be forced to sit silently on the sidelines if we can't hear or see or understand what is going on.


One thing that should change is the access to pre-sentence reports and to letters handed in as mitigation. These are key elements that affect sentence length and the public should have access to what they say and what they recommend.


Another concern is creeping anonymity in courts.


In recent years I have seen witnesses granted anonymity because they are worried about a social media backlash.


Perhaps a better understanding of how to turn your accounts private would be warranted rather than seeing such applications waved through - five of them in the trial of the Manchester Arena bomber's brother.


I often feel as though we are battling against a perception, lifted from TV dramas, that witnesses have their windows put through by angry locals and packs of howling journalists gather outside their homes.


Life just isn't like that. I have covered some of the most controversial cases this country has ever seen - from Soham to 7/7 and Manchester Arena. I have never heard of so much as a nasty look being thrown in the direction of witnesses or family members.


Far from it, often they have the sympathy of their communities, and rightly so, but giving them anonymity is a very dangerous path.


Imagine that one such key witness is a well-known fantasist who the police believe is telling the truth. How would anyone know?


The police and the Home Office are now getting in on the act. At a recent inquest, the senior investigating officer claimed, and was granted, anonymity because he was worried what his neighbours would say.


Mentors who help rehabilitate prisoners have claimed that their communities will turn on them if their names were to become public, as though Muslims are ready to march on the home of anyone who helps tackle extremism.


When one of those witnesses turned up, duly granted anonymity, it turned out he was a former police officer.


My issue here is that no one sees the danger in this path. We are cooking up conspiracy theories for the future for absolutely no reason other than a few angry comments on Twitter.


Turning to the operation of courts after the pandemic.


CVP has been a blessing in terms of getting to preliminary hearings around the country and has undoubtedly helped open up courts. Some of the clerks have become adept at operating the system and swinging the cameras around.


However, the courts have not been properly mic-ed up and that means there is always the risk that we can't hear one or other of the parties clearly.


We know that proceedings won't stop if we can't hear - and we can't speak to the court to alert them.


If I need to hear the proceedings, I have to be in court.


That could improve if a lot of money is spent on getting technicians with the kind of skills we have seen at the Manchester Arena Inquiry, going around to make sure everything is working on a daily basis, and allowing us to alert them if it is not.


However, for many cases we will still need to be in court to check spellings and dates and talk to the parties, none of which can be done easily over a remote link.


Lastly, can I make a plea to love our court buildings. We have spent a lot of money building them, whether 100 years ago or 50. Many are architectural gems that only really get the love they deserve when they are sold off as hotels.


I would like to see school children visit courts and be impressed with the thoroughness and fairness of our system. There is nothing that will scare you off crime so much as a day sitting in magistrates court. But if what they see is a creaking system with leaking toilets and drafty windows, maybe we are better off keeping the doors closed.


As newsprint becomes less fashionable and newsroom staff have shrunk, deadlines have got earlier and court reporters a rarity.


There is a tendency these days in the press to relegate court reporting, to play down its importance as if information posted on social media is more valuable. We should remember its relevance before we find we are left with no court reporters left.


Court reporting is a privilege - you see the best and the worst of people but you see them up close and personal. You see the thoroughness of the British legal system, which is like no other in the world. It's a thing to be proud of.

Thank you for reading.


October 2021