One of my most frequently fielded questions and criticisms is about the level of crime and court reporting in the paper. I take it seriously, but usually I answer those questions democratically and without placing blame. But I had an experience in court this week so typical of why it’s a problem, I decided to share. Not to place blame, but hopefully to allow readers to understand: court reporting is simply an incredible drain on a small paper with one reporter.
I have Grand Forks court dates marked on my calendar each month. The morning of court, I check the docket. A few things will reliably catch my attention: cases to do with drugs, assault, or theft over $5,000. I also check for well-known names. Those are usually the cases worth the time it takes to go to court, for reasons you’ll soon understand.
On this Oct. 16 court date, I had four cases I was tracking that I knew would be in court. When I checked the docket, it was dozens of pages long.
But before I talk too much more about being in court, there are some variables that underscore why this is time consuming.
First of all, every case for the day is schedule for 9:30 a.m., with few exceptions. In what order the cases are heard depends on whether the accused is in custody (and needs to appear by video) and the lawyers – and there are many, many lawyers: provincial and federal Crown, duty counsel, defense counsel. Sometimes, the accused must be tracked down. Sometimes, the judge orders them to consult with duty counsel. Sometimes its the lawyer that doesn’t show, or the lawyer wants all their cases dealt with at once so they can leave.
Court is really a hurry-up-and-wait event.
All of these variables mean court doesn’t actually start at 9:30. Last Tuesday, it was around 10:15 before we really got into the meat of things.
There are other factors, too. On Tuesday, there was a family court and a juvenile court case on the docket. As a reporter, those are off-limits.
Court isn’t like Law and Order or Suits. The charges on the docket sound juicy, and believe me, I wish the proceedings were as interesting as they sounded. But most of what I sit through are cursory appearances, cases to be pushed forward and dealt with at another time.
On Tuesday, I stayed until the lunch break. In that time, the court touched on 38 cases. Twenty-one of those were pushed to be dealt with on the next court date, Nov. 13. The reasons varied, but not one made a good story that day, even the ones I was there to hear.
Finding out what happened to land someone in court is a whole other battle. You’d think the fact that they appeared in court would make the circumstances public, or at least reasonably easily attained. You’d be wrong.
After two phone calls and an in-person chat about a specific case, I got every response from “I don’t know,” to “file an FOI,” to a Crown lawyer who seemed both disdainful and afraid of me when I identified myself as a reporter. Actually getting access to a court document that had been referenced in front of me that day? Not going to happen.
I spent four and a half hours in court on Tuesday, including a 15 minute morning break. I took 10 pages worth of notes in that time, but I came back to the office with a scant five sentences worth of workable material.
And why does this matter?
For reporters, going to court is an important responsibility, and one that, theoretically, I’d enjoy. But in practice? The time invested to story output ratio is out of whack. How to I repeatedly justify upwards of 15 hours a month spent in court if in the end I can barely cobble together a story? There are plenty of stories to write as-is.
So, I’m selective about when I go to court, and why. I need to know something will happen – I need to know that if I sit there for three, five, seven hours (the latter has happened, by the way), I’m going to walk away with a story, and a good one at that.
This raises more serious questions about our justice system as a whole that I’ll reserve for a column or story of its own – why rural court is seemingly last rung on the ladder and why it takes so long to get basic issues dealt with.
But in the meantime, for the many people who commented on Facebook, wondering if the Gazette would be there, and for the few of you that actually called my office to ask: I hope this provides a little insight. It’s a constant struggle, but one I won’t give up on. And trust me, when something newsworthy happens, you’ll find it in these pages.