By Polly Rippon, 16th August 2021
I recently wrote a piece about a Court of Protection hearing I observed. It was published in The Times with the headline: “Family tries to stop marriage of woman with learning disability and £1m fortune to conman”.
There’s also a blog on the Open Justice Court of Protection website about the same hearing, written by a public observer, Celia Kitzinger, “Controlling and coercive behaviour: A hearing before Roberts J”.
These are two very different reports of the same hearing. We watched it together but produced very different accounts, for very different audiences.
The blog account has been read by just under 1,500 people – a specialist audience composed largely of people working in health and social care, and lawyers in the Family Court and the Court of Protection. My newspaper report will have been read much more widely: The Times has approximately 1.5 million readers daily in print and online.
This is an account of why and how journalists’ reports of hearings are typically so different from the pieces written by bloggers for projects like the Open Justice Court of Protection Project.
I have been a journalist and court reporter for over 20 years and I teach media law and court reporting in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield.
For the majority of my career, I have reported on cases in the criminal and coroners’ courts mainly in and around South and West Yorkshire. I have covered high profile cases, including numerous murder trials and I also attended the Hillsborough inquests in Warrington, so I am more than familiar with covering the courts.
However, I had never covered the Court of Protection before, nor been to any kind of Family Court hearing, and my interest was piqued by reading some of Professor Celia Kitzinger’s blogs, which I stumbled across on Twitter.
I felt journalistically they were not only newsworthy stories but also raised important societal issues which warrant discussion in an open forum.
Traditionally, journalists and newspaper editors have shunned reporting of Family Court and Court of Protection proceedings because of the strict reporting restrictions that almost always ban identification of the parties involved. News-wise a story is deemed to be a ‘better story’ if you know who is involved and what has happened to them – just as quotes are better coming from named people rather than unnamed ‘sources’. So journalists tend to stick to covering the criminal courts and inquests because parties in those cases can generally be named.
As a society though, we need to be educated about the issues being considered in both the Family Court and in the Court of Protection, so that – if necessary – we can hold the authorities to account and push for change and reform.
There are some excellent journalists doing important and pioneering work in this area – such as Louise Tickle, who is working hard to shine a light on some of the decisions being made in the ‘shadowy’ family courts.
Writing a newsworthy court report
Writing a court report is very different from writing a blog post.
The late Harold Evans, author of one of the best books on journalistic writing, Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers (Pimlico, 2000), said:
“It is not enough to get the news. We must be able to put it across. Meaning must be unmistakable, and it must also be succinct. Readers have not the time and newspapers have not the space for elaborate reiteration. This imposes decisive requirements. In protecting the reader from incomprehension and boredom, the text editor has to insist on language which is specific, emphatic and concise. Every word must be understood by the ordinary reader, every sentence must be clear at one glance, and every story must say something about people. There must never be a doubt about its relevance to our daily life. There must be no abstractions.“
If you are writing for a newspaper, you will have very limited space and in this case three days of evidence and a notepad full of shorthand notes that had to be condensed into 400 words.
The first thing that needs to be considered is the audience.
Who will be reading the story? Where will it be published? This will set the tone of the report.
Court reporting is formulaic and although many of the ingredients going into the story will be the same for different publications – for example what happened, how, when, where and to whom? – the language used in a broadsheet newspaper article may be different to that used in a story written for a tabloid.
Court copy must also be legally sound – in a nutshell reporters can publish anything and everything said during proceedings held in public in England and Wales as long as there are no reporting restrictions and their copy is ‘fair, accurate and contemporaneous’. Essentially this means both sides of the story are included, the information reported is accurate (this is where shorthand comes in) and it is published as soon as practicable after the hearing takes place.
This gives the publication a defence of Absolute Privilege and protects it against an action for defamation if something defamatory is said by any of the parties in court.
Once the reporter knows who the story is aimed at, they need to encapsulate the case in a striking first paragraph which tempts the reader to read on.
This is what’s known in the industry as the ‘intro’ and mastering the intro is one of the first things trainee journalists learn. It is more important than ever in today’s digital age, when publications are battling it out for clicks and sales in an over-crowded market.
The intro should contain new and exciting human interest detail and summarise the story in fewer than 20 words, ideally.
At journalism college I was told to imagine how I’d summarise the story for friends in the pub when trying to write my intro.
In this case, the intro was obvious to me – it’s a shocking and unusual case – not something I’ve ever heard of or come across before. The intro had to contain the fact it was a legal battle, the parties involved, the mother’s vulnerability, the man’s previous history and the approximate value of her estate – these were the key ingredients for me.
Essentially, a daughter had gone to the extreme measure of asking a judge for an injunction preventing her vulnerable mother’s partner from contacting her mum, marrying her or entering into a civil partnership with her after she discovered he had a string of previous criminal convictions for defrauding vulnerable women.
The court was told the woman, who is in her sixties, has a lifelong learning difficulty and arterial brain disease. She has been deemed incapable of making her own decisions about her property and finances. And expert witness, psychologist Professor Rob Dubrow-Marshall said she had been coerced and controlled to such an extent by her partner that he had effectively ‘substituted’ her mind for his.
One of the biggest challenges of writing an intro in a story like this is getting all the interesting and relevant detail into the first paragraph. There is no right or wrong way to write it – every reporter will come up with a slightly different version or angle but the newest, most shocking information needs to be in the story. Here’s the opening sentence in my published story:
Compare this with the opening sentence of Celia Kitzinger’s blog post, which just doesn’t have the same impact:
“This case before Mrs Justice Roberts (COP 13503831 heard on 6th – 8th July 2021) concerns coercive control.”
Celia Kitzinger told me: “I actively try to avoid foregrounding what might be considered ‘shocking’ or ‘exciting’ material in favour of a more educational, measured approach. My key aim in this blog post was to communicate what I’d learnt from the hearing about the law on controlling or coercive behaviour. My own background is in academic Psychology, so it’s not surprising that after this first sentence I moved quickly into giving a psychological account of controlling or coercive behaviour, including a link to an article in a counselling journal. Mindful of the blog’s audience of lawyers and those concerned with the law, I then described the behaviour as an offence under s. 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 and quoted an extract from the Statutory Guidance Framework. I provided all this background information up front, at the beginning of the blog, before addressing the specific issues in this particular case. Comparing my account with the Times piece, I can see how far removed it is from a ‘human interest’ story!”
The drama of the court room
Court reporters use the ‘inverted pyramid’ style of writing which is used by all journalists to construct news stories.
Essentially this style is designed to grab readers’ attention as quickly as possible, presenting the most important and exciting details in the first paragraph and then developing the story with more specific information as the article proceeds.
Once the introduction is written the reporter’s job is to flesh out the bones, adding the meaty details taken from the evidence heard in court and using quotations to ‘add colour’. The aim is to bring the copy to life, tell the human side of the story and try to recreate the drama of the courtroom.
This also allows the reporter to break up long passages of text to maintain interest.
It’s also important to outline what the case is about so the basics need to be included – who, what, where, when, how?
You don’t want the reader to go away with unanswered questions, or wondering what happened.
In a criminal case, this is easy. Journalists report the prosecution allegations first, backed up by witness evidence heard in court and any relevant cross examination. Then it’s the turn of the defence to set out its case. Once the jury has come back with a verdict, it’s the verdict, any sentencing remarks from the judge and the sentence. Reporting restrictions are rare because due to recognition of the importance of the principle of open justice.
When reporting from the Court of Protection there is no prosecution or defence case and reporting restrictions are almost always automatic. Because there is always a vulnerable person (P) at the centre of the case, transparency orders usually ban reporting of any detail which could lead to that person’s identification.
After hearing all the evidence, the judge in this case, Mrs Justice Jennifer Roberts, reserved judgement (i.e. will consider all the evidence and publish a written judgement in the next few weeks). This gives the reporter (and the blogger) ‘a second bite of the cherry’ – the chance to publish the story again with a new angle, which in this case will be the latest information: the judge’s decision.
My story summarised salient points from what happened in court but didn’t go into the day-by-day – and sometimes moment-by-moment verbatim transcript – detail of the blog post. Celia Kitzinger told me:
“In writing for the Project, I want to communicate the process by which justice is done – not just the outcome. So the details of the questions asked and the answers given – and the way those answers are phrased – can really matter. This is what we get from observing a hearing, as opposed to simply reading the judgment afterwards. In the blog post about this case there were lots of places where I quoted as close to verbatim as I could (given that we’re not allowed to audio-record) because I felt the exchanges in court revealed aspects of the case, and the participants’ perspectives on what was going on, in particularly vivid ways. Compare, for example, the Times summary statement that the man “said that he was the victim of a conspiracy by his previous victims” (which is an accurate and succinct summary of the facts) with the more detailed account in the blog, which includes my own personal reflections on this.
Writing for the national media and writing a blog post for a specialist project involve some very different skills. It is fantastic there are bloggers such as Professor Celia Kitzinger and other professionals attending court and writing long form pieces about the complexities and ethical issues raised in COP cases.
However, it is equally important these hearings are covered by mainstream media outlets who can communicate the proceedings to the general public in a clear and concise way, so they have a better understanding of the issues at stake and the decisions being made about the lives of vulnerable people.
Polly Rippon is a former regional daily newspaper reporter and news editor with 20 years’ experience in journalism and media relations. She continues to write freelance pieces for national titles, and teaching media law and court reporting in the Department of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University. She tweets @PollyRippon