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It was heartening to hear the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, discuss how best to achieve “public confidence in the justice system, transparency and engagement” last week.
His call for legal clarity and accessibility to UK courts should be welcomed and built upon by advocates of free expression.
‘Open Justice Unbound’, Lord Neuberger’s Judicial Studies Board Annual Lecture 2011, was – as the UK Supreme Court Blog put it – “a vision for open justice in the 21st century”.
For the time being, however, it’s a vision and there is still much that can be done to open up the UK’s courts online.
Lord Neuberger addressed pertinent digital points in his speech, which covered a range issues: the accessibility and format of judgments, super injunctions and accurate court reporting.
He welcomed “court tweeting”, as long as it does not interfere with the hearing, realistically adding: “I doubt however that we will see the development of tweeting from the bench”.
Lord Neuberger suggested that “a more active approach might usefully be taken by those of us who are concerned with the administration of justice to ensure that judgments are publicised and properly reported”.
“We should perhaps build on the Supreme Court’s practice of issuing short, easily accessible judgment summaries with judgments.”
Bloggers can particularly savour his comment that the judiciary “should foster the already developing community of active informed court reporting on the internet through blogs, and tweeting”.
“[W]e should support the responsible legal journalists; we should initiate, support, encourage and assist public legal education,” he continued.
“The great strength of our society is that it is built on the competing voices of free speech. Justice to be truly open must join its voice to the chorus; and must ensure that inaccurate or misleading reporting cannot gain traction.”
Making legal information accessible to the public, as well as professional specialists, is at the heart of open justice.
Unfortunately a lot of courts information is locked behind pricey paywalls, only available to firms and institutions that can afford the annual subscription fees.
Many lawyers say that the Bailii website, which makes many judgments available, is an indispensible resource, but this should not stop the courts from continually innovating and releasing more data.
The journalist and author Heather Brooke has drawn attention to some of the existing paid for courts services, questioning the costs associated with accessing transcriptions and documents, in her latest book, The Silent State.
At this point the worst thing that could happen would be for an opaque private contractor to step in and handle more courts data and services, bringing with them unnecessary consultancy costs and strain on the public purse.
Instead the Ministry of Justice should work with legal practitioners, experienced web developers and transparency / Freedom of Information specialists, to work out the cheapest and most efficient way of opening up courts information online, making more information free and available to all British citizens.
More accessible guidance and data will help achieve Lord Neuberger’s aims for more accurate and informed reporting:
“…debates must be based on fact not misconception, deliberate or otherwise. Persuasion should be based on truth rather than propaganda. It is one thing to disagree with a judgment, to disagree with a law and to campaign to change the law, but it is another thing to misstate what was said in a judgment, or to misstate the law.”
Lucy Series, a legal researcher at the University of Exeter, raised valuable questions about open justice and the Court of Protection on her blog recently; and drew attention to this bizarre state of affairs, quoting a post on Binary Law:
“There is still a restriction on the number of English cases from divisions of the High Court which can be added to the BAILII database, arising from the fact that the shorthand writers who transcribe judgments which have been given verbally (as opposed to those handed down on paper) own the copyright in the transcribed version of the judgment. This prevents the judgment being added to the BAILII database without the consent of the shorthand writer. BAILII, being a free website, has no funds with which to acquire a licence to copy and display these transcripts.”
This is just one of the many quirky inconsistencies in UK law that needs to be examined. Let’s hope increasing discussion by bloggers and lawyers, along with Lord Neuberger’s valuable comments, prompt the Ministry of Justice to more seriously address the question of digital open justice, looking to other national courts for inspiration.
If you have any research, examples from other countries, or additional thoughts to share please contact jt.townend [at] gmail.com.
Lord Neuberger’s speech can be read in full at this link.
Also see helpful commentary on the speech at these links:
Judith Townend is a freelance journalist and PhD candidate based at City University London’s Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism. Her blog covering digital media law can be found at: http://meejalaw.com.