Lawyer or Barrister? Justice, Judge or Magistrate? QC or SC? Let’s go through some of the common errors that journalists make.
The legal profession is an old profession, let’s admit it. Been around for aeons, maybe more.
Unfortunately, there is a fair bit of misreporting across the board in Australia—whether it’s the Herald Sun, the Age or ABC—journalists of all creeds seem to fall prey to some common errors.
#1. Relying on the transcript alone
Surprise! Transcripts from court proceedings are not 100% foolproof—after all, they are a human creation.
There are often typos, missing segments (where the audio recording is unclear), or errors in the spelling of barristers’ names (easily ironed out by searching your relevant online barrister directory, e.g. VicBar).
In other words, be careful of the transcript.
#2. The statement of claim ain’t the full story
In high-profile court cases, journalists often ask for a copy of the originating process or writ (which is the document used to commence a court proceeding). Often, their request extends only to the statement of claim—but not the defence.
Don’t you want to know the full story? Ask for the defence as well, because it can reveal more about the defendant’s position and lead to better reporting.
#3. Lawyers are not barristers (and vice versa)
One morning, I nearly choked on my cereal when a news anchor decided to call a barrister a lawyer. Yes, you might think this is a pernickety pet peeve, but it matters.
Why? In Australia, we have a split profession between lawyers and barristers, both of which are subject to different professional conduct rules. Barristers form a class of independent sole-practitioners who focus mainly on court-related work. They receive their work through lawyers (called briefs) and are generally restricted from getting work directly from members of the public.
These things matter because you’d want to have these distinctions down pat for ultimate “street credibility” aka “street cred” in your reporting.
#4. Proper names for judges (and other decision-makers)
I have lost track of the number of times that a news article or a news report on TV refers to a judge purely by their surname, e.g. “In the case of X, Brown found that…” or more horrifyingly, “in the case of X, Ms Brown found that…”. Don’t forget to include their official title, being the official capacity that they are making a determination:
- “Justice Brown” for the High Court, Federal and Supreme Courts;
- “Judge Brown” for the County Courts;
- “Magistrate Brown” for the Magistrates’ Courts; and
- “Member Brown”, often for tribunals such as the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
#5. That preference for QC over SC
There is no substantive difference.
Barristers recognised for their excellence are granted either the letters “QC” (Queen’s Counsel) or “SC” (Senior Counsel). Whether a barrister gets the letters “QC” or “SC” is a personal choice.
Journalists love using “QC” in headings to news articles all… the… time. “SC” is the Republican take on “QC” and should feature a lot more in news reporting.
#6. Other miscellaneous observations
Accurate reporting is important but not always observed. Don’t forget to read a case properly. Clarify where clarification is needed, whether the lawyer or barrister involved in the case—if they are happy to talk, that is.