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GOOD LIE GUIDE: Scottish Court Service forced to release censored media advice to staff after ‘public interest’ intervention by Scottish Information Commissioner

06 Feb

Court media guide faces dishonesty claims. DOCUMENTS giving advice on how the courts should handle media enquiries reveal staff at the Scottish Court Service (SCS) are told to provide a scripted response of false information when faced with certain questions from journalists.

The Scottish Court Service media guide – obtained in response to a Freedom of Information request, was initially released in a redacted format – deliberately concealing the sections of the guide which recommend court staff lie to the press when asked about convictions.

However, after the Scottish Information Commissioner became involved in the matter, the guide was grudgingly released by the SCS in an unredacted format – revealing the controversial written advice to SCS staff on how they should conceal types of information when queried by journalists.

In one section detailing how SCS employees should reply to enquiries relating to spent convictions, Page 18 of the redacted version of the SCS media guide states “If a conviction is spent it should be treated as though it never existed.” with the remaining details concealed.

On Page 19 of the unredacted version of the SCS media guide – released after the SIC became involved in the case, the uncensored advice reveals Court staff are provided with a ‘suggested reply’ equivalent to providing the media with false information, stating: “Thank you for your enquiry regarding XXX. I can confirm that a search of our records has failed to reveal such a conviction.”

Private Proceedings also came in for censored advice after it emerged the Court Service had deliberately concealed references on page 14 of the redacted version of the SCS media guide to judges holding proceedings in private – merely as a convenience, and to avoid a hearing in open court – which may end up in the press.

The guide warns Court staff to take advice, and states on page 15 in the unredacted version of the SCS media guide : “If proceedings take place in private, you may be able to provide limited information. Explain to the judge that there is media interest and ask whether proceedings are being held in private merely as a convenience (for example in chambers late in the day to avoid having to convene a court) and therefore basic information can be supplied, or whether it was the judge’s intention to exclude the public and the media.”

Scottish Court Service Media Guide. Court Service staff are also advised on every page of the guide: “If an incident arises that is likely to attract media attention, please contact Communications … immediately.”

SCS employees are also told not to get chatty with journalists: “When providing factual information, it is important that you are not drawn into conversation on other matters. You should not be asked to provide views, or to summarise what was said in evidence or by the judge during the court hearing.”

The media guide also bans any “fishing enquiries”. Court staff are told to deal only with requests about specific cases.

The guide states: “You should not answer fishing enquiries on the basis that you are only able to deal with requests about specified cases. Do not answer vague questions such as: Can you tell me if James Smith of the High Street has a criminal record? Are there any other civil actions against Jones and Co? There was a case up the other week about a man who assaulted his wife, who was that?”

Court staff are also told that if media excluded from a case, they should “take advice” and “should clarify with the judge if any information can be provided.”

During the summer of 2014, Scotland’s top judge threatened to ban the media from access to court documents & cases. Lord Gill, Scotland’s top judge issued an angry edict against press freedom to report on cases in Scotland’s courts, reported here: COURT SECRETS: Scotland’s anti-transparency top judge Lord Brian Gill threatens media censorship in row over reporting access to court papers

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