One of the charges regularly levied against the government's courts reform programme is that closing local courts and moving processes online threatens the principle of open justice. But anyone proposing the issue as a vote-grabber in the general election is likely to get a rude awakening if a report quietly posted online by Whitehall's in-house thinktank is anything to go by.
The research by Policy Lab - 'We are a creative space where policy teams can develop the knowledge and skills to develop policy in a more open, data-driven, digital and user-centred way' - found a public either apathetic about or, actively hostile to, public access to the courts. 'There was a strong sense that there was a limit to how open justice should be’ and ‘The fact there are barriers to accessing the justice system is often not thought to be a bad thing’ summed up the feelings of the lab's focus groups.
Such opinions will not surprise anyone who has been approached by an offender after a magistrates’ court hearing and told 'I don’t want anything in the paper about this’. And of course almost no one regards open justice as an absolute: who cannot agree to exceptions for the protection of juveniles, state or commercial secrets, or the integrity of future proceedings? But even they state the bleeding obvious, the findings are significant because the research was commissioned by HM Courts & Tribunals Service to inform what it calls 'current open justice workstreams'.
The study was based on four workshops involving a total of 44 people who had not interacted with courts in the past five years; participants were split equally between men and women and biased towards the young - the largest age group was between 18 and 25. Strikingly, only one participant had ever gone to view a court case, and this had been for a school trip.
According to the report, there was 'a strong feeling that there was a limit to how open justice should be'. Participants did not like the idea of trial-by-media and there were strong feelings about the right to privacy and anonymity. One interesting finding was an assumption that people who attend court hearings are already subject to some kind of vetting.
'Participants were particularly concerned that justice should not become a source of entertainment,' the report found. Of course such high-mindedness generally comes with an element of humbug - 'As soon as I've finished I shall recommend they ban it', as Tony Hancock once said. But it suggests it will be a long time before any extension of courtroom broadcasting goes on the agenda. There was a 'strong desire' not to emulate the US in putting cameras into criminal courts.
On a more immediate level, participants were sceptical about one of HMCTS' ideas for preserving open justice - providing 'viewing booths' in public places. Significantly, one concern was about the cost: 'There was some reluctance to spend more resources opening up the process.' However when asked about ways of alerting people online to upcoming cases: 'It was generally felt that listings would be helpful; there was some expectation/assumption that they would be easily available in such a format already'.
Overall the Policy Lab will confirm many suspicions about public attitudes to justice, which the focus groups found was equated with outcomes, almost entirely of criminal cases. It will certainly reinforce calls for better legal education. What impact it will have on the HMCTS reforms remains to be seen - but it is not impossible that public opposition to the reforms may crystallise around the concern not that digital justice is too secret but that it is too open.