“The Justice Committee has warned that the court system needs to do more to support open justice in the digital age“
Reads the opening line on the publication page of the report ‘Court system failing to support public understanding of justice system‘, which was published yesterday. On the whole it is a great report and I positively support the recommendations.
I’m glad to see the committee had regard to court observers other than just the press. I did feel that the terms of reference, which had concerned mainly “the media’s coverage of the courts”, did not immediately appear to invite submissions from those performing a much wider ‘public watchdog’ role on the Justice System.
These include bloggers like myself or groups like the Open Justice Court of Protection Project. Other groups seemingly excluded from providing evidence to the committee would include law students, victims of crime, and litigants in person. All of whom would benefit from being able to access detailed information about cases in their local courts and tribunals.
Here are a few comments having read the report.
Paragraph 21 of the report contains a common urban myth: “Accredited journalists are trusted with information by the courts and are required to have a certain level of legal training to be able to deal with that information”. There is no such requirement.
The rules of the press card scheme are published online and there is simply no requirement for any skills, training, competence etc. Rule 1.8 states:
* – they are working professionally as a media worker in the UK.
* – their employment (or self-employment) is wholly or significantly concerned with the gathering, transport or processing of information or images for publication in broadcast electronic or written media including TV, radio, internet-based services, newspaper and periodicals; and
* – they need in the course of those duties to identify themselves in public or otherwise to official services.
This criteria applies just as much to truck drivers who command outside broadcast vehicles as to diligent well trained investigative journalists. The warm glow of reassurance that a press card holder is somehow vetted or verified is misplaced.
The press card system, in my opinion, needs reform. No other accreditation system relies on a share of earnings to justify membership. For an example of an accreditation scheme that works look at the CSCS which operates in the construction industry.
I suggest the ‘court reporter’ stamp should be an extra that is added to the press card after the holder has verified they have completed some form of media law training. It is entirely right that those who have met the high standards can benefit from the status that a press card brings but this should be based on merit not share of earnings.
HMCTS has seemingly admitted that the press card system needs work – “HMCTS was acutely conscious of the need to avoid any impression of state licensing of journalists” the Media Working Group minutes for 16th September 2019 reports.
“The group also discussed whether, alongside the press card, there should be an alternative system of accreditation created which would potentially include criteria on issues like media law training.
Media representative acknowledged that the onus was on the industry to consider this and come up with a solution.“
It is not known if ‘the industry’ has done any work in the three-years-since. I feel a report that examines “the media’s coverage of the courts” should have asked the question ‘what is the media and how should they be identified?’
High Court lists – mention of the public
“44…the Royal Courts of Justice daily case list currently states that: “if a representative of the media wishes to attend a remote hearing they should contact the listing office”, omitting reference to the fact that members of the public may also attend such hearings”
I’m pleased to report that an exchange on twitter in October caused an adjustment on the Rolls Building list. A similar request by Prof Kitzinger to benefit the Court of Protection is still outstanding.
Access to court records
72. The Government and HMCTS should establish a streamlined process for accessing court documents, including courts lists, using a digital portal modelled on Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) in the United States. This should also be used to inform the media of reporting restrictions, including automatic restrictions and notice of applications for reporting restrictions.
CE-File is useful for the High Court but the cost is prohibitively high at £11/document. The public could have to pay hundreds to get up to speed on a long running case. Eg my costs covering ‘The Marshall Island Mystery’ have exceeded some £300 to-date.
The £11 fee is set by statute and made sense when traditionally providing copies required a rummage through a filing cabinet and a trip to the photocopier – not a few clicks at a computer.
At a House of Lords debate on various fee increases in April 2021 Lord Wolfson said it is “considered correct for those who can pay more than the actual cost of the process to do so” as “Fees are the main source of direct income for courts“. He said the increase in the price of office copy requests “will supplement the additional funding already being provided by the Government“.
A freedom of information request made by this blog revealed that the Chancery Division (for y/e May 2021) raised some £121,810 over 6,600 requests for ‘Office Copies’ of documents.
A hefty chunk of change will need to be found if access to documents is extended by reducing the fee, this is a political issue rather than a judicial one.
Voice Recognition Transcripts
87. The current situation on court transcripts is unsatisfactory. HMCTS should explore whether greater use of technology, such as AI-powered transcription, could be piloted to see whether it can be used to reduce the cost of producing court transcripts.
I would invite the committee to look at the work of Mr Justice Fordham who has published Judgments containing the following note (example):
“Note: This judgment was produced and approved by the Judge, after using voice-recognition software during an ex tempore judgment in a remote hearing”
Public Engagement Group
134. A separate court information user group should be established to represent the interests of groups other than the media, such as court observers, NGOs, researchers and law tech that can also make recommendations that are considered and decided upon by the Senior Data Governance Panel.
A great recommendation. In the correspondence that follows, coincidentally on the day of the reports publication, I’m told by HMCTS “The membership of our public user engagement groups are currently under review, as the reform programme draws to a close, and we are not seeking to add new members.“
On 26th July 2022 I e-mailed HMCTS to say:
I am a member of the public who blogs.
I understand HMCTS has a number of Public User Engagement Groups.
As a public user of the courts can you tell me who I should contact to be represented at these groups.
I have been encountering some serious failings in Open Justice which appear to be systematic rather than one-off incidents. Eg failings to put correct contact details on cause lists so remote attendance fails etc. I feel these should be raised at a higher level than a poor supervisor in an overstretched list office.
On 1st October 2022
Thank you for your recent enquiry to participate in our public user engagement groups.
Please first accept our sincerest apologies for not responding to you sooner regarding your query regarding Public Engagement User Groups. This was due to a breakdown in our internal communication processes which should not have happened.
The current membership of these groups is drawn from representatives from national advice sector organisations, each representing the needs of specific user types, such as defendants or witnesses. The membership of our public user engagement groups are currently under review, as the reform programme draws to a close, and we are not seeking to add new members.
We would however value your input into future insights research work and would like to propose we add you to our panel of user research participants for potential future user insights engagement. If this is of interest to you please respond, giving your permission to add your contact details to the user research database.