Barrister-turned-law reporter Daniel Hoadley explains what it’s like to document court cases, and asks what the future holds for this niche breed of journalist in the internet age
For over 700 hundred years law reporters have crammed themselves, notebooks in hand, into courts up and down the land. All lawyers will be familiar with formidably large volumes on bookshelves, setting out the law in relation to cannibalistic marooned sailors and snails idly floating in bottles of ginger beer. The internet has seen an explosion in the array of ways of getting to case law, including a new initiative recently launched by Judgmental, a group of digital activists who believe case law would be more ‘usable’ if it were indexed by internet search engines. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether we still need law reporters and the contents of the notebooks?
In 2010 there were approximately 2,500 judgments handed down by the High Court and both divisions of the Court of Appeal. While we can rely on the mainstream media and, increasingly, the legal blogosphere to keep us informed about Rio Ferdinand’s defeat in the High Court or Christopher Jeffries’ victory over The Daily Mirror and the Sun for contempt of court, there are a vast number of cases which, though unlikely to whet the public’s appetite for scandal, change the law. The task of bringing to light those cases flying beneath the media’s radar falls within the exclusive province of an obscure breed of journalist: the law reporter.
The work done by law reporters is constitutionally significant. In his now seminal text, The Rule of Law, the late Tom Bingham said “the law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligent, clear and predictable.” The law reporter’s job is to further this aim by analysing the thousands of judgments given each year and tracking, recording and communicating critical developments in all areas of the law.
Go back to the 2,500-odd judgments handed down last year. They cover areas as diverse as crime, family law, extradition, planning, contract and immigration. Only a fraction can truly be said to change the law. As a law reporter, my job is to identify those critical cases using my knowledge of the law and to turn those judgments into a resource that can be used by lawyers, students and policy-makers.
How are judgments made usable? Some judgments can run for hundreds of paragraphs. The reporter’s first job is to extract from the material the crucial facts and the rule of law (or ratio decidendi) applied to them. Rather than having to read the entire judgment, in a law report, such as The Weekly Law Reports, the reader will have a clear summary of the core issues on the first page. The contents of the judgment is literally law – it must be completely accurate. The reporter and the judge will go over the text with a fine toothcomb to ensure its reliability. Cases are of no use to anyone if they cannot be found. The reporter will index the core subject matter and issues so that the cases can be located quickly in hardcopy or on online law databases. The point is that law reporters do a lot of the intellectual legwork so that the reader does not have to.
The naysayers may be right to point out that law reports are not free, unlike the transcripts provided by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII). But a transcript from BAILII is not a law report – it is what Adam Wagner rightly describes as “raw” law. That is why the High Court and the Court of Appeal still require, as a matter of good practice, that The Law Reports and The Weekly Law Reports published by The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting be cited in preference to any other source.
Any increase in the accessibility of case law should be welcomed. But expert analysis and dispassionate reporting of the critical cases that make new law is essential to the proper functioning of the courts and the development of the law. So long as there is a commitment to the administration of justice, the work done by law reporters, and the contents of their notebooks, will remain crucial.