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Croydon Advertiser journalist overturns attempt to exclude press from court

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THE trial of a man who threatened a 13-year-old girl could become a potentially landmark case on the issues of open justice and freedom of the press after the defence tried to ban an Advertiser journalist from the court room.
A barrister applied for our reporter to be excluded from the proceedings while defendant John Page's mother gave evidence because she felt "persecuted" by the stories written about her son.
After four hours of deliberation, involving magistrates, a district judge and a submission from reporter Gareth Davies the application was thrown out.
His tweets of events at Croydon Magistrates' Court today (Wednesday) prompted messages of support from journalists across the country, the Society of Editors and coverage by industry websites Press Gazette and Hold the Front Page.  
Page, 37, was jailed for eight months last year for causing death by careless driving after he ran down 14-year-old Lillian Groves outside her home.
Cannabis was found in Page's blood and a half-smoked joint was on his dashboard, but the lack of drug-driving conviction prompted the Advertiser, alongside Lillian's family, to launch a campaign calling for roadside testing devices and new legislation.
More than 20,000 people signed the petition for Lillian's Law, which led to new guidelines being included this year's Queen's Speech.
But barrister Thalia Maragh said her client felt this "heavy reporting" amounted to "persecution".
"The basis on which I make this application is that the presence of the press will adversely affect the administration of justice because it would prejudice the pursuit of the defendant's case," said Ms Maragh.
"What the witness has said is that she isn't prepared to give evidence when the press is sitting in court.
"It is my submission to the district judge and my understanding from Ms Page that the press coverage has been such that it amounts to persecution
"So much so that every time her son comes to court, this journalist is there. This case isn't related, yet he is here again."
Ms Page, who was in court to corroborate her son's claim that he was at home when he was accused of threatening the 13-year-old, who can't be named for legal reasons, refused an offer to appear in court behind a screen.
Gareth was asked whether he would be willing to accept a summary of her evidence but declined on the basis of open justice. His stance was supported by Joseph McKenna, prosecuting.
He said: "As far as I am aware, unless Leveson has ruled otherwise, we live in a country with a free press.
"The press has a perfect right to hear her evidence. If she doesn't want to give evidence that's a matter for her.
"She has been offered screens. The court has been as accommodating as it could be. She has turned that down.
"The court has the power to exclude the public, and by extension the press, but it should be exercised with care and only in exceptional circumstances."
Proceedings were then moved to a different court amid concern that if the defence outlined the reason for the application it would prejudice the district judge presiding over the case.
New magistrates sought guidance from a court clerk who said that excluding the press would be "an exceptional step to take".
The clerk cited the case of R v Richards (1998) where an 18-year-old witness in a murder trial refused to give evidence because she felt "uncomfortable" in the presence of the defendant's friends and family.
Mr McKenna pointed out that while the public gallery in that case had been cleared, the press were allowed to stay. The ruling, he added, had occurred before courts could offer witnesses special measures such as giving evidence from behind a screen.
Ms Maragh remained unmoved: "Ms Page wont enter the court while the journalist is sitting there. She told me that she didn't know how what she would say would be perceived by the journalist.
"If she takes too long to answer a question she is worried how it will be reported.
"It's not a question of stopping him reporting the case but how the quality of her evidence would be affected."
When Gareth gave his submission to the court he said he had never given cause for Page to feel persecuted and had not received a complaint from his family as a result of any of the stories he had written.
He added that the press had a long established right to attend and report on the courts and that, having already covered half of the trial, he would be unable to accurately report the defence if excluded.
The issue was also complicated by the presence of Lillian's mother, Natasha Groves, who attended court but left the public gallery voluntarily.
Rejecting the application, District Judge Robert Hunter said: "Justice in adult court is open justice.
"I can understand more readily how she can feel intimidated by ordinary members of the public but they have agreed to remain out of the court voluntarily. The press, as is their right, wish to observe and report the proceedings.
"What I have difficulty in seeing is how she would find the press intimidating or how anything of significance from what has already been reported is going to arise.
"Bearing in mind this is a discretion I have to exercise sparingly and given the reasons I have said I am not going to exclude the reporter from the Croydon Advertiser from this court."
Following the ruling Ms Page refused to give evidence. Her son, who lives with her in Underwood, Fieldway, was found guilty of an offence under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986.
Page, who was not present in court, will be sentenced at Croydon Magistrates' Court on November 28.
- For the full story on the court case see this week's Croydon Advertiser out Friday (November 23)

Croydon Advertiser journalist overturns attempt to exclude press from court


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