The Role of the Judicial Communications
161. The Judicial Communications Office (JCO),
which took over a role formerly carried out by the press office
of the DCA, was established in April 2005 by Lord Woolf, then
Lord Chief Justice, "to increase the public's confidence
as part of an overall requirement to enhance
public confidence in the justice system".
The current Lord Chief Justice has explained that the JCO's specific
role is to provide "a full press office service with advice
and support available 24-hours a day, seven days a week".
The office has nine staff including two press officers, although
one of those posts is a job share (Q 242). In this section,
we consider how the JCO operates and how it might do so more effectively
162. Mike Wicksteed, Head of Judicial Communications,
told us that the JCO had two elements: the media relations element
which "tends broadly speaking to be reactive, but there is
a proactive element in it", and the internal communications
element (Q 213). It is the first of these that concerns us
here. The Chief Public Information Officer, Peter Farr, explained
the work of the press office as follows:
"We usually know in advance if there is
a particularly controversial case where a judgment is to be handed
down; we do not always know on sentencing, though occasionally
a judge will contact us in advance and say you ought to be aware
that I am passing down a sentence in this case today, either there
has been a lot of media interest in it or it is reasonable to
assume that there will be media interest in it. Our approach on
those occasions is to
ensure that there is something available
to be given to the media, either in terms of a judgment or in
terms of sentencing remarks. That is the best prospect really
for the media being able to report things accurately and in context
Often if the media are aware of the full picture they are
much more likely to write a fair and accurate report" (Q 268).
163. It is undoubtedly helpful for the JCO to
provide the media with judgments and sentencing remarks. However,
in the absence of any further explanation, this may not be sufficient
to ensure that the judiciary are properly represented in the media.
For example if, in the Sweeney case (discussed in Chapter 2),
the JCO had done more to drive home the message that the judge
was simply following sentencing guidelines, newspapers such as
The Sun might have moderated their attacks on "the
arrogance of judges in their mink-lined towers"
and turned their fire on the guidelines in question. As Clare
Dyer of The Guardian told us, "there ought to have
been somebody in the Judicial Communications Office who could
have found out that information and put it out on the day
We would not then have [had] this idea that there were these terribly
lenient judges who were just doing it off the top of their heads.
The public needs to know that they are acting on guidelines"
(Q 89). Similarly, Frances Gibb wrote that during the Sweeney
furore "the media clamoured for a response
164. Unsurprisingly, a number of witnesses felt
that the JCO needed to enhance its media "fire fighting"
capabilities. For example, Professor Genn told us that the
issue of "fire fighting
needs to be sorted out because
... sometimes there is misreporting because the people reporting
it do not understand what is going on". She insisted that
"there needs to be a system for correcting misapprehensions"
(Q 314). Similarly, Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail told
us that "perception is everything and therefore the judges
need to address that
They need to get their message across
[because] if you do not get the message across, you are losing
the perception war" by merely giving "a nuts and bolts
background to issues" (QQ 341, 342, 351).
165. What then, aside from providing copies of
judgments and sentencing remarks, might the JCO do to secure more
balanced coverage of the judiciary in the media? We have already
suggested that issuing media releases alongside controversial
judgments is desirable. In addition, there is the option of the
Lord Chief Justice speaking to the media, which may on occasion
be necessary, but it could be problematic for him to speak about
individual cases given his role in the Court of Appeal.
166. Instead, Joshua Rozenberg suggested that
the JCO should "act as the public spokesman for the judges
in a way that they currently do not do" by offering "a
public spokesman who is trained, able and authorised to speak
on the judges' behalf without having to refer everything that
he or she might say to an individual judge" (Q 88).
Such a spokesman would probably need to be a trained lawyer, something
which the JCO currently lacks (Q 243). Alternatively, it
was suggested to us that a panel of senior or retired judges could
fulfil this spokesman role (QQ 89, 103, 109). Spokesmen of
this kind might correct inaccuracies, highlight significant sections
in judgments or sentencing remarks, and possibly even explain
complex points of law to facilitate more informed media coverage.
167. There are some possible snags with giving
the JCO this type of spokesman role, however. Sir Igor Judge
felt that "no judge should comment on any other judge's decision"
because it should all be resolved through the formal appeals process.
He asked, "what happens if the judge's sentence is completely
barking? It may be way over the topseven years for a shoplifter.
Do we have a spokesman to say the judge was wrong or do we have
a spokesman to say 'well let us try and find some justification'?"
In conclusion, he said that "we are responsible for what
we say in court and people should not have to defend us or criticise
us publicly until it goes to a higher court" (Q 277).
168. The Lord Chief Justice, however, seems amenable
to a more active JCO: "the Communications Office offers help
and information to the media and is increasingly called on to
comment on news stories before they get into print, which tends
to ensure that the record is straight rather than needs putting
apparent support for a JCO which does more than merely distribute
judgments and sentencing remarks is most encouraging.
169. In addition to "fire fighting",
it is important that the JCO (alongside the relevant government
departments) should take responsibility for educating the public
and building confidence in the judiciary over the longer-term,
as Professor Genn said (Q 314). It is particularly important
that school pupils should be taught about these issues, and it
is encouraging that political, legal and human rights, civil and
criminal law and the justice system are statutory elements of
the citizenship curriculum. The judiciary already play some role
in the teaching of these topics through participating in mock
trials, for example, but there is undoubtedly scope for judges
and judiciary officialssubject to their workloadto
do more to inform and enliven the teaching of this hugely important
part of the school curriculum.
170. No matter how the JCO may develop, it is
essential that judges should comprehend its vitally important
role and co-operate accordingly. As Frances Gibb has written,
the JCO "is not an expensive add-on; it is an essential part
of a modern judiciary and must be given the tools to do its job".
Specifically, it is important that judges should alert the JCO
if there is a possibility of a judgment or sentencing decision
being controversial or newsworthy. They should also not shy away
from asking the JCO for media training or advice on presentational
issues such as how a speech might be portrayed in the media. Sir Igor
Judge's statement that he would be "pretty horrified"
if the JCO offered him advice on a speech (Q 226) was perhaps
symptomatic of the fact that many judges have yet to reconcile
themselves to the need for a professional judicial communications
171. We conclude that the judges should consider
making the Judicial Communications Office more active and assertive
in its dealings with the media in order to represent the judiciary
effectively. We suggest that consideration be given to appointing
one or more spokesmen with appropriate qualifications and legal
experience who would be permitted to speak to the media with the
aim of securing coverage which accurately reflects the judgment
or sentencing decision. However, under no circumstances should
such spokesmen seek to justify decisions as opposed to explaining