Justice Secretary Jack Straw backs Herts Advertiser in bid to get court lists

PUBLISHED: 16:21 30 April 2008 | UPDATED: 13:15 06 May 2010

JUSTICE Secretary Jack Straw has agreed to investigate why the magistrates court in St Albans is no longer supplying lists of defendants to local newspapers. St Albans MP Anne Main raised the issue in the House of Commons during Justice Questions on Tues

JUSTICE Secretary Jack Straw has agreed to investigate why the magistrates court in St Albans is no longer supplying lists of defendants to local newspapers.

St Albans MP Anne Main raised the issue in the House of Commons during Justice Questions on Tuesday and was assured by Mr Straw that he would look into the problem which has arisen since the court office moved to Watford seven months ago.

The Justice Secretary later told Mrs Main that the situation was "bonkers" and he would follow it up.

Mrs Main was contacted by the Herts Advertiser after this newspapers and its sister paper, The Welwyn and Hatfield Time, had not received any details of forthcoming cases happening at Central Herts Magistrates Courts in St Albans for seven months.

The MP said she expected to be palmed off with a response such as, "I will write to the Rt Honourable Lady shortly". Instead when she explained how long it had been since the papers had received any court listings, Mr Straw asked to see her straight after the session ended.

Mrs Main explained that she had to ask her question on the back of another question about sentencing but when Jack Straw heard it he looked puzzled and said, 'I will talk to you later'.

She added: "He then met me afterwards and said he could not believe the situation, that court reporting was the bread and butter of local journalism and that he would deal with the problem straightaway."

"I think it is a result," she added.

The court lists stopped being sent to newspapers when the St Albans Magistrates Courts Information Office was moved to Watford last October.

They had previously been emailed but since the move, that has stopped and no detailed lists have been posted at the magistrates court itself.

As a result newspapers which have limited staff have been unable to give little or no coverage to cases happening there.

As St Albans serves as the magistrates courts for all of Central Herts, the outcome for offenders from St Albans, Potters Bar, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield and Borehamwood has received little or no publicity.

Journalists from both newspapers have made numerous phone calls over recent months to try to get the supply of the court lists re-established but without success.

Most of the time the lack of information has been blamed on problems with the computer system but the Welwyn and Hatfield Times was told it could not have the lists because it would be in breach of the Data Protection Act.

But the Data Protection Commissioner has ruled that courts can continue to provide lists, registers and other information without contravention of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The Home Office and judges have agreed that justice must be conducted in public to ensure that people can see that trials are fair to the defendant, victim or witness - known as the Open Justice Principle. And statutory powers have been created to protect the media's right to report on court proceedings without fear of libel.

A spokesperson for Her Majesty's Courts Services said: "The Government believes that it is important for the press to have access to what is happening in the criminal courts. We are reviewing the national picture with regard to providing information to the press and will be in a position to say more when our inquiries are complete.

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