Court judgments are the essential building blocks of a common law system. As such, they should in principle be available for free to all-comers – subject of course to necessary reporting restrictions and statutory measures to promote rehabilitation. The fact that, in practice, this is far from the case is unacceptable in the digital age.
Especially as, thanks to the demise of traditional local newspapers, much of the routine business of the courts of England and Wales goes unreported anywhere.
At the moment, the Ministry of Justice partially fills this knowledge gap at a bargain price through a contract with the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII), which over the past 20 years has built up a remarkable free online database of judgments. It has just agreed to extend its current contract by one year, at a cost of £50,000. This is welcome. But questions need to be asked about why such a crucial patch in our constitutional quilt is made available to the public in this way.
BAILII’s problems are twofold. First, its database is incomplete, both in the spectrum of courts covered and the choice of judgments selected for posting (this is up to individual judges). Second, for all sorts of good reasons, it limits the uses to which its data can be put. Bulk downloads and ‘scraping’ by software agents are forbidden, to the frustration of justice researchers and lawtech innovators.
Meanwhile, the computerisation of court processes through HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s modernisation programme will create a mountain of data, with judgments from all courts – not just the big ones – potentially at the apex. At the prompting of bodies such as the Legal Education Foundation, HMCTS is timidly beginning to consider how to mine, manage and disseminate this data.
Access to judgments is not generally a big problem for solicitors. Professionals have their own channels, including the Law Society’s excellent library. And as for the wider public, surely we already have enough amateur litigants stalking the law courts with printouts of everything from Donoghue v Stevenson to Magna Carta stacked under their arms?
But open justice is not just for the worthy or significant. It is our birthright.