15 July 2008

Jo challenges court secrecy

Joanna Lean

When court staff made the wrong decision to hold a bail application hearing in private Sheffield Journalism Studies graduate Joanna Lean did not let it lie.

Instead she challenged the decision and persuaded ushers to admit their mistake and reveal the outcome of the hearing.

"I had been to a preliminary hearing a few days earlier for four men accused of armed robbery and having imitation firearms in public," said Jo, who works as a reporter with the Warrington Guardian.

"At that hearing the bail arrangements for one of the defendants was read out and the other three were remanded in custody.

"But I knew that two more defendants were to make a bail application within the next few days.

"When I saw their names on the court list I went to Warrington Crown Court to sit in on the hearing, but was told it would be held in chambers."

The next day Jo took a letter of objection to His Honour Judge Roger Dutton explaining why the decision to hold bail applications in private was wrong.

Later that day she received a phone call from an usher admitting the decision to hold bail applications in private was wrong and giving her the details of the hearing.

"I knew from my law training that bail hearings should be held in public unless there are exceptional circumstances and this did not fit, especially since the details of one of the defendant's bail had been read in open court," said Jo.

"But court staff were adamant at first that bail applications should be held in private unless they were attached to another hearing," she said.

"It is important that journalists have the courage and the knowledge to challenge illegal court decisions and orders in the interests of open justice," said Jo.

"It might be scary the first time you do it but when you know you are right it is absolutely the correct thing to do," she said.