Newspaper-Reading in Court, 1867-1998

From the Irish Times, 22 November 1867:

“Sir – I was sitting in the court of Queen’s Bench yesterday, and while counsel was reading a long affidavit I applied myself to the columns of the Standard newspaper. Suddenly the Lord Chief Justice called out to me – ‘This is not a place for the public to read newspapers.’

I understood this as a prohibition, and of course desisted. But the question has since occurred to me – ‘Has not an exalted magistrate for once exceeded his authority?’ I know of no law prohibiting what I was doing, or conferring upon his lordship the power of imposing such a prohibition. I was not committing a contempt of court, or conducting myself in an unseemly manner.

I am a member of the English bar, to which I was called in 1844, and I have not only frequently read newspapers under the eye of the bench in England, but I have seen barristers of every degree of eminence doing the same thing, without rebuke or question. Reading newspapers is a necessity to barristers, and it is surely a reasonable convenience to them to do so in court in the interest of actual occupation. Of course I do not mean that an English barrister in Ireland is likely to be anxious to save time in the way; but I suppose there must be one rule for all, whether barristers, solicitors or spectators.

The Lord Chief Justice’s words applied only to ‘the public,’ of which I was considered to be an ordinary member; but can it be seemly for a lawyer to read a newspaper in court, and not for a layman? The case would be different if there were any danger of the courts being used by idlers for reading the news; but who would dream of affirming the existence of such a danger? The case of England shows that there is none. I am sure that the dignity of the English courts is well maintained, and I cannot think it probable that, in the face of the practice established in them, Irish judges would advisedly decide that to read newspapers in court was so unseemly as to call for interposition.

I may observe that newspapers contain law reports, and some journals nothing else. These must be used sometimes in court. But I was not asked what I was reading, nor whether I belonged to the profession. If I had declined to desist, would the Chief Justice have gone so far as to commit me, or fine me, or even to order my expulsion?

I am, sir, your obedient servant, TS

PS – I enclose my name and address.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2022-01-12-at-11.24.44-1.png
James Whiteside, Lord Chief Justice of ireland, 1866-76, who, as well as having strong views on the Liffey smell, took the view that a court was no place to read newspapers.

Not all Irish judges were as strict as Lord Chief Justice Whiteside! The Glasgow Herald, reporting on the 1887 Coercion Act trial of newspaperman William O’Brien, M.P. before the Mitchelstown magistrates, stated that

“On the Court resuming, all the defendants were represented. It was at once apparent that most of them, as well as other in Court, had taken advantage of the adjournment to furnish themselves with copies of the Dublin newspapers. They do many things in Ireland in a free and easy way. Few of our Scotch judges tolerate the reading of newspapers in Court, but here the Magistrates themselves showed the example, each of them returning to court with a newspaper in his hand. Mr O’Brien, who took his old seat beside his barrister Mr Healy, was deeply engrossed in the columns of an English newspaper. Even while evidence of his own paper was being read, Mr O’Brien continued to read, and seemed quite indifferent to what was going on… even Mr Healy, in an ideal moment, sought amusement in the pictures of a comic paper.

The Weekly Dispatch (London) also noticed the magistrates’ newspaper reading, and was less tolerant of it, remarking that even though they presumably got their orders from Dublin Castle, it would have been as well for them to pretend to listen to the case that they were pretending to be deciding.

Traditionally, judicial objections to the reading of newspapers in court had been regarded as preciousness akin to ordering a bald man to leave a court on a bright summer’s day because the rays of the sun were refracted from his head to the dazzled eyes of the judge.

Moreover, as shown by the Mitchelstown report above, newspaper-reading on the bench was itself a common practice. Fraser’s Magazine of 1864 stated that Lord Mansfield, the prince of courtesy, was in the habit of reading newspapers and answering letters in court; Lord Eldon did so too, and Lord Abinger would do it ‘ostentatiously and offensively, to mark his contempt for the advocate.’ As against this, Lord Chancellor Hardwicke used to declare that ‘he did not take his place upon the bench to write letters to his correspondences, or to read the newspaper.’

Lord Campbell stated that a glance at a newspaper ‘may be permitted to a judge during a tedious reply, as a hint to a counsel against prolixity’. However, he did not approve of a judge ‘indulging his curiosity by turning over the unwieldy pages of the Times while a counsel has been opening in an condensed manner a very important and complicated case requiring the closes attention of a judge, however quick, learned and discriminating.’

Although the decision as to whether or not to allow reading of newspapers in court appeared to be one for the particular judge, by the late 19th century, more and more judges were deciding that court was no place for newspapers, at least if read by anybody other than themselves. Lord Morris, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland between 1887 and 1889, was particularly fond of pretending to read the newspaper ‘ostentatiously’ during Counsel’s summing-up in jury trials, while in fact listening intently with a view to perfecting his own, invariably excellent, charge.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2022-01-12-at-11.22.03.png
Lord Morris, via Wikpedia.

In August 1882, the Liverpool Echo reported that ‘a reporter who happened to be holding in his hands a copy of an evening journal, and who might, for anything that is known to the contrary, have been consulting it for purely business purposes – such, for instance, as a desire to know whether all his ‘copy’ had reached the office safely – was peremptorily ordered to put the newspaper down. Not satisfied with the rapidity with which this direction was obeyed, the judge next insisted that the gentleman should leave the court.

The author of the piece went on to state that ‘the right of an irate member of the bench to apply physical violence to the removal of a gentleman whose only offence is that he has looked at a paper in court remains to be established.’ However, in 1900 at Alzenau, Germany, a prominent tradesman was sentenced to 24 hours imprisonment for the ‘grave irreverence’ of reading a newspaper in court while a case was under trial.

In 1891 Mr Justice Denman told a barrister that ‘if you are a barrister you must behave as such and not be seen reading a newspaper in court or engaging in anything inconsistent with the idea that you are heart and soul following the business in hand.

The trend continued into the 20th century, with an English judge saying to a solicitor caught reading newspapers in court in 1911 that ‘this place is not a free library.’

In 1906 the Empire News and the Umpire stated that Sir Gorell Barneswill not allow anyone to read a newspaper in court, firstly because he does not consider it in keeping with the dignity of the court for persons to be interested in anything but is proceeding there and, secondly, the rustling and turning over of the average unwieldy newspaper distracts people’s attention from the subject matter in harm.’

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2022-01-11-at-13.05.44.png
Sir Gorell Barnes. A sketch carried out at great risk, since, for the same reasons, namely the majesty of the law and the comfort of witnesses, Sir Gorell also had a problem with sketch artists.

Irish Republicans in court during the Irish War of Independence enthusiastically adopted Lord Abinger’s practice of reading newspapers as a mark of distaste, though the reasons for their distaste went beyond mere scorn at the ineptitude of Counsel. In Fermoy, in February 1920, seven men charged in connection with a member of the Shropshire Light Infantry read newspapers in court and occasionally spoke to their friends. Their hats had to be removed. It seems that, in the circumstances, the court decided not to make an issue of their newspaper reading.

In 1929, at the Leeds Assizes, the Vicar of Hulme, near Huddersfield, was fined 40s for declining to desist reading a newspaper in court. Likewise, in the London King’s Bench Division in July 1928, Mr Justice Swift rebuked some people who were reading newspapers in court. ‘I don’t know whether they come from the theatrical profession,’ he said, ‘If so, they would be very angry with me if I went to one of their theatres and read a newspaper during one of their performances.’

There have been some relatively recent cases of witnesses being in trouble for reading newspapers in court in Ireland, though none resulting in fine or imprisonment. In 1968, the Meath Chronicle reported that a ‘blonde’ wearing a polo neck knitted sweater and black jeans had had to be removed from Trim Court after an altercation. In response to it being remarked by the judge that she had been reading a newspaper in court that morning, she said: ‘Yes I was, I was bored stiff. I had other things to think about.’

In 1993, the Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal reported that a man reading a newspaper at Dundalk Court had been told by the judge: ‘This is not a mart or a circus. You can’t stand down there and read a paper.’ The newspaper was put away.

In 1998 an Englishman was threatened with, but managed to escape, a week in jail for describing proceedings at Galway District Court as a mockery after he had been asked to refrain from reading a newspaper in open court. The judge said that it was a very hurtful thing to be told his court was a mockery, and that if the man knew how hard he worked he would not have said that, but it was not worth putting the police to the trouble of sending him to prison.

Anyone – journalist, newspaper, or barrister – who reads paper newspapers in court today, it seems, does so at peril of public reprimand at the very least! But what about online newspapers?

Image Credit

Leave a Reply