Court Visits: The Open Justice Principle

Ursula Smartt | September 24, 2019

It might surprise NCH law students who are not from the UK that you can go into any law court without having to make an appointment or being turned away at the door by an official.

The principle of ‘open justice’ has been a fundamental principle where citizens and all members of the media are entitled to witness the rule of law being applied by the courts, criminal or civil, every day including Saturdays (Magistrates’ Courts). A former Lord Chancellor in the 19 th century, Lord Halsbury, referred to press reporting of proceedings in court as going beyond ‘merely enlarging the area of the court, and communicating to all, that which all had the right to know,’ as being a positive duty to report proceedings and act as the ‘watchdog’ or the ‘eyes and ears’ of the general public and inform their readers about issues of public interest, including the administration of justice (MacDougall v. Knight [1889] AC 194, p. 200). The open justice principle has been well established by common law (case law), and the role of the media in reporting court cases has always been welcomed by UK and EU citizens as they are now able to read judgments online published by The Times or The Independent, for instance, or view UK Supreme Court judgments on YouTube or the court’s own streaming system. Lord Diplock explained in A G v. Leveller Magazine Ltd [1979] AC 440 that proceedings being held in open court meant not only that the press and public were to be admitted but also that nothing should be done to discourage the publication to a wider public of fair and accurate reporting of proceedings.

It is then obvious that a student studying law at NCH should have full knowledge of the civil and criminal court system in England and Wales (the Scottish system is different) for ‘law’ is a very practical subject. For this reason, all first year law students have to attend at least one criminal court session at a local Magistrates’ Court and civil proceedings at a local County Court. As Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service has been modernised and digitised over the past six years you may find no rigid line of demarcation between civil and criminal courts as almost all the courts exercise both types of jurisdiction and are often now in the same building. You will also notice that magistrates and judges use very little paper in court: they will have iPads and some criminal defendants will appear via video link from their prison as they are on remand or are even being sentenced ‘online’. The courts are encouraged to deliver ‘speedy justice’ and during your first court visit you may initially wonder what is going on? For this reason you may wish to visit the courts recommended below more than once.

Since the court visits are a substantial part of the study of ‘English Legal System’ (ELS) and part of the formative assessment, new NCH law students are strongly encouraged to arrange these visits as soon as possible and certainly before their first ELS lecture (w.b. 23 September 2019). Students can undertake these visits any time, they can go to their local magistrates’ and county courts and they can go in small groups during freshers’ week so that they can get to know each other as well. This does not have to be in London and can be undertaken anywhere in England/Wales. Please note: the only courts you cannot go to are Youth Courts (for defendants under the age of 18, usually situated in magistrates’ courts) and any proceedings in the family courts- these proceedings are held in private (in camera). The module study guide for English Legal System also contains a court questionnaire which might be useful as a guide and prompt you into asking questions.

What should you wear? As you are embarking on your legal study and possible career it might be a good idea to start dressing appropriately, so, not too casual, no jeans or shorts, no T-Shirts displaying loud or offensive logos. If you are offending the court (also known as ‘contempt of court’) the presiding justice has the statutory right to order you to leave the court (‘contempt in the face of the court’). When entering the court room you should take any hat or cap off (unless you are covering your head for religious or medical reasons). You must bow to the court and you will observe all lawyers and court staff (e.g. the ushers) doing this. This means that you are – in fact you are showing your respect to The Crown and you will see the Royal Crest above the presiding judge or justices in each of the court rooms you visit. You are allowed to make handwritten notes during your court observation, but it is strictly forbidden to use any recording devices, tweet or text, make photos in court or use your mobile phone. Again, you could be in contempt of court and could face up to two years’ imprisonment for these offences. So, it is best if you keep your ‘mobiles’ in your bag or pocket.


Court visits:

County Court*

Magistrates’ Court (adult proceedings only)*

Crown Court

High Court (e.g. London; Leeds; Bristol; Birmingham; Manchester)


Courts in London only:

Royal Courts of Justice – London, Strand, comprising

Court of Appeal – Civil Division

Court of Appeal – Criminal Division

Central Criminal Court – The Old Bailey

UK Supreme Court – Parliament Square*

* compulsory