A century ago, in Scott v Scott (1913), the House of Lords affirmed the common law rule that courts must administer justice in public. Just last week, Lord Justice Kay cited the ruling when rejecting a request by a Saudi prince for litigation to be heard in private. He ruled: ‘The open justice principle has universal application except where it is strictly necessary to depart from it in the interests of justice.’
Fine words. But justice cannot be said to be open unless the public has access to information about who is to appear, where and when, to face what charges. At the moment, at the most basic level of the magistrates’ court, it is not. Bizarrely, in my opinion, magistrates’ court lists are subject to the rules of the Data Protection Act, and handed out only to approved and vetted parties.
The only representatives of the general public to meet this requirement are local newspapers. Four decades ago, when as a long-haired young reporter I covered the quotidien dramas of Guildford Magistrates’ Court, the local press could be said to fulfil a public access function. My paper and its rivals reported every single case. The vagrant committed for trial for hitting an off-licence owner on the head with a cider bottle (he claimed he was simply holding the bottle up for inspection); the retired major who claimed a brandy sauce had pushed him over the drink-driving limit, all had their 15 minutes of infamy.
For every local citizen with a few pence for the daily paper, justice could be seen to be done.
In 2013, the idea of paid-for papers sending teams of shorthand-proficient reporters to every single local court hearing sounds as obsolete as the Brylcreemed skilled tradesmen who used to cast our words into lines of metal type. In most parts of the country the local press as a medium of record has all but vanished.
There is a potential replacement: online blogs and ‘hyperlocal’ citizen-generated news services have sprung up around the country. Some are little more than bigoted rants, but some are excellent. Many would like to cover their local magistrates’ courts but find it impossible to get hold of accurate lists, let alone in accessible electronic formats. The rule, it seems, is that unless an organisation meets the information commissioner’s definition of a newspaper, it should not be trusted with this data.
At a time when transparency and promoting public confidence in the justice system are supposed to be top political priorities – see last month’s ‘Transforming the CJS’ action plan – this needs to be sorted out.
A couple of years ago, the hyperlocal blogger William Perrin, who also sits on the Ministry of Justice’s transparency panel, proposed a transparency charter as a way of making the courts more open.
Perrin suggests that, in criminal cases, the following basic information should be readily available to everyone, not just the vetted few:
- The full spelling of a defendant’s name;
- Their date of birth and full home address, including door number and postcode (this is to avoid libel actions from individuals sharing the same name as people appearing in court);
- The full charges;
- Written copies of any reporting restrictions applicable.
I agree. Everyone who has thought about this for five minutes appreciates that there are complications: reuse of the data for unsavoury purposes by organisations outside English jurisdiction, the scope of the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, and so on. But surely it’s worth the effort of resolving these, so that open justice is preserved in practice as well as principle?
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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