The Law

This section deals only with England and Wales, not Scotland or Northern Ireland. Media law is very complex and specialised and to be sure of what you may or may not report you should consult the latest edition of the excellent McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. You must take the law seriously because there are severe penalties for breaking the rules, up to and including imprisonment.

  • magistrates' court: lower case and plural possessive even when a case is heard by a single magistrate. So: ‘Bromley magistrates’ court’, or ‘the case was heard by Bromley magistrates’. Some cases are heard by three lay (ie not legally qualified) magistrates, and the one who does the talking is ‘the chairman of the bench’ or ‘chairman of the magistrates’. They can be called JPs (for Justice of the Peace) in headings or copy. They are addressed as Mr, Mrs or Miss. In towns, cases may be heard by a single lawyer known as a district judge, a post which used to be called stipendiary magistrate. In the first reference it is District Judge John Smith, subsequently Mr Smith. He should not be referred to as ‘the judge’, though you could call him ‘the district judge’ (l/c) if you have to.

  • Crown Court (caps), as in Croydon Crown Court, though ‘the court (l/c) heard’. Cases may be heard by High Court judges, who are referred to throughout as Mr Justice Surname, or ‘the judge’; circuit judges, who are referred to as Judge Surname (if there are two with the same name they are known as, for example, Judge Fiona Roberts and Judge Christopher Roberts) or ‘the judge’; or recorders, who are part-time judges. They are referred to as ‘the recorder, Michael Haines’ and subsequently ‘Mr Haines’ or ‘the recorder (l/c)’. All three categories may be referred to as judges in heads and intros. Apart from High Court judges, they should be designated QC if they qualify, as in ‘Judge Doughty QC’.

  • the Old Bailey is correctly called the Central Criminal Court, but this name is not often used. It has two full-time judges. One is the Recorder of London, who is referred to as ‘the Recorder of London, Sir David Williams QC’ and later as the Recorder (cap). The other, his or her deputy, is the Common Serjeant, referred to as ‘the Common Serjeant, Judge Seamark QC’ and subsequently as ‘the Common Serjeant’ or ‘the judge’. Other cases are heard by High Court judges, circuit judges or recorders (see above for how to refer to them).

  • the county court (l/c), deals with civil matters such as boundary disputes, claims for debt repayment and personal injury, and family issues such as adoption. The Crime and Courts Act 2013 replaced the previous system of some 150 county courts with a single county court which sits in lots of places. So instead of saying 'Reading county court' you should say 'the county court at Reading'. Most cases are dealt with by district judges, who, confusingly, are not the same as the district judges (the former stipendiary magistrates) in magistrates’ courts. The judge is referred to as ‘Judge Scott’ (unless there are two with the same surname, in which case he is Judge James Scott) and subsequently as ‘Judge Scott’ or ‘the judge’.


  • the High Court sits in London (at the Law Courts in the Strand) and in other towns around the country. You should make it clear where the hearing is taking place.

    The High Court has three divisions:

    the Queen's Bench Division (or King’s Bench Division if the monarch is male) is headed by the President of the Queen's Bench Division. The QBD hears contract law, personal injury and negligence cases, and has a supervisory jurisdiction over all inferior courts;

    the Chancery Division is headed by the Chancellor of the Chancery Division. It deals with business law, trusts law, probate law and insolvency;

    the Family Division is headed by the President of the Family Division. It handles personal matters such as divorce, children, probate and medical treatment. In all three divisions the other judges are High Court judges, who are referred to as ‘Mr Justice Surname’ or ‘the judge’.

  • the Court of Appeal, which sits in London at the Law Courts, has two divisions:

    the Civil Division, which hears appeals from the three divisions of the High Court, from the county courts across England and Wales, and from some tribunals. It is headed by the Master of the Rolls;

    the Criminal Division, which hears appeals from the Crown Courts. It is headed by the Lord Chief Justice.

    In both divisions, when more than one judge takes part in a case, name them all.

  • the Supreme Court took over from the House of Lords in 2009 as final court of appeal for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and, in civil cases only, for Scotland. It has a President, a Deputy President and ten Justices, who were formerly Law Lords. All are addressed as Lord or Lady Surname. The Supreme Court is housed in the Middlesex Guildhall in the City of Westminster.

  • Privy Council: The judicial committee of the Privy Council (note: members are Privy Counsellors) is the supreme court of appeal for some Commonwealth countries and also hears appeals from some professional disciplinary bodies and Church courts. A case is usually heard by a panel of five senior judges, known as ‘the Board’. It shares the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster with the Supreme Court.

  • youth courts are lower case, eg Orpington youth court. The magistrate in charge is referred to as ‘the chairman, Mr Alex Richman’ and subsequently ‘the chairman’ or ‘Mr Richman’. Youth courts deal with those aged ten (the statutory lowest age of criminal responsibility) to 17, though some 17-year-olds may appear in adult courts. It is illegal to publish the name, address, school or particulars leading to the identification of any young person who is involved in youth court proceedings, even as a witness or complainant. If a 17-year-old appears in an adult court, the judge may order that he or she is not identified, so if a 17-year-old is named in an adult court report you should check that this has been explicitly permitted by the judge. It is usual for youths to be named only in serious cases. In reports from youth courts use ‘accused of’ not ‘charged with’, and avoid the words ‘convicted’ and ‘convictions’. Say ‘found guilty’.

  • the Court of Protection makes decisions or appoints ‘deputies’ to make decisions on behalf of people who lack the capacity themselves. Issues it deals with include ordering the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, and compelling vulnerable adults to undergo sterilisation or abortion. Cases are heard by High Court, circuit and district judges at courts throughout England and Wales. Hearings are normally private, but in certain cases the media may attend. Even when journalists win the right to be present, judges retain the right to decide what, if anything, may be published.

  • family courts: Family matters (mainly concerning children) are dealt with in the Family Division of the High Court, by district judges in county courts and in Family Proceedings Courts, which are specialist magistrates’ courts.

    There are two types of case concerning children: public and private law.

    Private law cases are brought by individuals, usually relating to divorce and custody arrangements.

    Public law cases are brought by local authorities or the NSPCC and include care orders, supervision orders and emergency protection orders. Since 2007 the press has been allowed to report on family cases in a limited way but in practice cases are nearly always heard in private.

  • tribunals: There are dozens of types held all over the country, such as employment. You need give only the name of the town, not the building. Tribunals usually sit as a panel with a legally qualified chairman and members with specific areas of expertise. All should be referred to by their ordinary style, eg Mr, Dr or Professor. You do not need to cap the name of the tribunal.

  • inquests: If the case involves a jury, they ‘return’ a verdict. If a coroner is sitting on his or her own, he or she ‘records’ a verdict. It is unwise to use the traditional local paper format of ‘Verdict: Accident’ on the end of the story. This is because it could accidentally be chopped off. This is less likely with the new technology than hot metal, but it is still a possibility. It is much better written into the copy, for example ‘Recording an accident verdict, the coroner said . . .’ or ‘The jury returned an accident verdict’. In either case it is not necessary to say ‘accidental death’, since death is obviously the reason for the hearing.


    the European Court of Justice, which sits in Luxembourg, deals with European Union law. Its decisions are binding on British courts.

    the European Court of Human Rights sits in Strasbourg and is not part of the EU, therefore do not use ‘EU’ in copy or headings. Its jurisdiction is recognised by 47 European states, including Great Britain, which have undertaken to honour its judgments. Although the court’s findings are not binding, in practice they are almost always accepted.

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  • All court and inquest reports, if a case is continuing, must have ‘The case continues’ or ‘was adjourned’ at the end. The name of the court must be given. If it is a High Court hearing, say whether it is in London or elsewhere.

  • suicide: Strictly speaking we should not say someone committed suicide until such a verdict is given at an inquest. You can convey the idea by various formulae such as ‘who was found hanged’ or ‘police are not looking for anyone else’. It’s ok to say ‘suspected suicide’.

  • libel is the use of false, defamatory claims about someone in written or printed form; slander is similar but is committed orally or in any other transient form. Both words function as nouns and verbs. The offence of criminal libel was abolished in 2010 so all cases are now civil, with damages being awarded to a successful claimant. Cases may be heard in a county court if all parties agree, but otherwise they go to the High Court (Queen’s Bench Division). A judge may hear the case alone or may decide to empanel a jury. Proposed reforms would limit the use of juries.

  • Lord Justice Leveson: Use this full title, not Lord Leveson. The latter would mean he is a peer entitled to sit in the House of Lords, which he is not. His title reflects his position as a judge who sits in the Court of Appeal (technically a Lord Justice of Appeal in Ordinary). If you want a change from Lord Justice Leveson, the correct term is Sir Brian Leveson, because he received an automatic knighthood when he became a High Court Judge. The Lord Chief Justice has the status of a peer, as do the other Justices of the Supreme Court.

  • QC: no comma, eg Cherie Booth QC.

  • Scottish law is different and beyond the remit of this style book.

  • witness box, not the American ‘witness stand’. Do not say a witness ‘took the stand’. An alternative would be ‘Giving evidence, Mr Stevens said . . .’ Another Americanism is ‘pled’ as the past tense of ‘plead’. In this country the form is ‘he pleaded guilty’, not ‘he pled guilty’.

  • divorce: Couples, either male/female or same sex, may not get divorced until they have been married for at least one year. Before that they may apply for a legal separation, which should not be referred to as a divorce. Ending a civil partnership is legally known as dissolving it, or dissolution, not divorce. A marriage may be annulled, or treated as if it were invalid from the beginning, for various reasons such as non-consummation (not in the case of same sex marriage) or if one partner was already married. An annulment can take place at any time after the marriage and should not be called a divorce.

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Last updated November 25, 2017