Now is a great moment to push for data about crime and justice to be published online.

Brace yourselves for some good news. Just three months after the Gazette published a call for all court lists to be published online rather than being handed out on paper in cosy deals with local newspaper editors, the powers that be have acted.

A paper from the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee has proposed amending rule 5.8 (which governs the supply of public information about a case) to ‘settle beyond controversy’ that no obstacles lie in the way of publication and ‘in due course’ lists should go online. If approved by the rule committee, the amendments could be signed in December and come in to force next April.

As the paper kindly quotes my article to make the case for change, I would love to say it was the Gazette what won it. Alas I cannot, for two reasons. First, although I have been banging on about open data in various forums for several years I came late to the campaign for open court listings: the running was made by colleagues on the Crime and Justice Transparency Sector Panel, chaired by Professor Kieron O’Hara of Southampton University. Secondly, we haven’t – quite – yet won.

Although a meeting of the panel (of which I am a member) yesterday heard that ministers are expected to smile on the change, in line with their policy aspiration to open data about the public services to the public, you will notice the words ‘in due course’. There are still discussions to be had about, for example, the length of time data identifying unconvicted individuals should be made officially available. And, almost incredibly, it seems that court IT systems will not be up to the challenge of posting the necessary data for perhaps another two years.

No doubt other obstacles will emerge.

Let’s not quibble at this stage, however. Movement on criminal court listings shows that the government machine can be coaxed in to positive change. And, for anyone who is interested in extracting other data sets from the crime and justice sector, for the benefit of open justice, more efficient administration or economic growth, now is an excellent time to make the case for change.

Plenty of other data sets are ripe for more open publication: magistrates’ court case results, for example, or possession claims or data on stolen motor vehicles.

The week after next the UK is due to host a summit of the global Open Government Partnership, a 60-nation organisation co-founded by the UK two years ago. We can expect the event to be welcomed by the prime minister, who is bound to repeat his pledge to make the UK government the most open and transparent in the world. David Cameron’s speechwriters are no doubt trawling the web for government data sets that can be opened up as examples to the rest of the world. If you have any suggestions in the legal, crime and justice sector, do let me know. 

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor