Published 22 April 2019
It’s nearly one hundred years since the courts recognised that not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done. Yet in the digital age, this principle has never been more relevant - and upholding it has never been more challenging.
Twenty four hour news and social media reporting means that both media and public expect a degree of access to inquests, public inquiries and other legal proceedings that allows a contemporaneous flow of information from inside the courtroom.
The commonality in so many of these cases are the families; families of those who died and families of those whose lives were changed irreversibly. In some cases, these families or individuals have had to campaign for an inquest to be re-opened or for government to establish an independent public inquiry. Even then, the victims and the survivors, the bereaved or the affected, will be wanting answers from the public bodies such as government departments, police forces, councils or health services they believe, rightly or wrongly, failed them badly, often in their hour of need. In these circumstances, it is no surprise that trust and confidence in authority is in short supply.
As a result of this mistrust and as a result of real or perceived conflicts of interest, it has become vital for those overseeing inquests and inquiries to ensure full independence and transparency in the way business is conducted. It may be quite inappropriate for an organisation whose conduct is under scrutiny at an inquest or inquiry to be simultaneously responsible for how that process is communicated to the outside world. For example, just imagine how the public would have reacted had a press officer from South Yorkshire Police managed the media around the Hillsborough Inquests.
But independence is only half the battle for an inquest or inquiry seeking to build trust and confidence: transparency is equally important. Families may often attend an inquest in person but the public largely rely on the media to be their eyes and ears in court. And in the digital age there is a lot of evidence for journalists to see and hear and to want, quite legitimately, to share in print, broadcast and online. Photographs, diagrams, graphics, mobile phone footage, CCTV... the range of audio-visual material is increasing as the technology which allows journalists to share it evolves too. An inquest or inquiry serious about ensuring justice is seen to be done needs a communications operation fit for purpose.
That means having the capability and capacity to share, subject to legal safeguards, significant quantities of evidence shown in court on the day and as soon as possible. During one recent high profile inquest, our team of crime and justice communications specialists were responsible for ensuring over 665 separate pieces of evidence (photos, videos, transcripts and notes) were made available on the days that they were adduced in evidence. This was a huge challenge but crucial to the transparency of the process and vital in allowing journalists to put oxygen into their copy or their package for the evening news. We also made more than 25 transcripts available to more than 100 reporters at the end of each day (shorthand, it seems, is increasingly out of fashion). If anyone can see the benefits of this crucial service it is journalists themselves. Reductions in staffing across traditional media mean the help of a professional press office in sharing transcripts and notification of evidence uploads is invaluable.
All the while, an inquest must still be able to answer queries about the legal process, for example the scope of an inquest or piece of terminology (inquest juries reach conclusions, not verdicts) and ensure media are alive to any issues which may bring a halt to proceedings. With 24 hour news many queries come out of hours as correspondents check facts or reporting restrictions. And when an inquest sits with a jury, monitoring what is being reported and discussed online is important to ensure the integrity of their decision-making process. There are also the practical arrangements for hearings, from ensuring media have the practical facilities they need to more specialist planning, for example a jury visit to a location in a busy city centre. Of paramount importance is the management of the media presence itself to ensure families (who may have differing views on what constitutes intrusion) and, potentially vulnerable, witnesses are treated with sensitivity and dignity. In our experience, some local authorities simply don’t have the capacity to provide this level of service.
We are very proud of the service our team provides on behalf of inquests and inquiries ensuring that the media and therefore the public have the greatest possible access to and understanding of what can be a complex legal process. We know that journalists value our assistance in getting answers to their questions and that legal teams appreciate being able to concentrate on the proceedings themselves.
Ultimately, an inquest or inquiry must speak through the legal process wherever possible and let the evidence do the talking. At Crest, we are proud to help make that happen.