Open justice is under threat in economic crime due to the way court lists operate, the difficulty of obtaining court documents and the number of hearings now being conducted in private, an anti-corruption non-government organisation (NGO) warns today.

A report by Corruption Watch says the lack of transparency in the English and Welsh courts risks undermining the fight against corruption, as prosecutions lose their deterrent effect.

The report, based on interviews with journalists, public officials, academics and lawyers, identifies a series of areas where open justice is being undermined.

It says court lists do not give enough detail and are not published far enough in advance for journalists to make informed decisions about which cases to attend. In the past year, the report says two major corruption trials and an internationally significant judicial review had not been covered contemporaneously by the press due to poor court lists.

The report also criticises the ‘privatisation’ of court list distribution, with the Ministry of Justice having provided public court listing information free of charge to a private company, which then provides ’privileged access’ only to members of the press willing to pay a ‘sizeable fee’.

Corruption Watch raises concerns over the number of Unexplained Wealth Orders – introduced this year to help authorities to recover illicit wealth – that are proceeding in ‘complete secrecy’, preventing ‘any meaningful scrutiny of this new and powerful tool by civil society and the media’.

According to the NGO, a ‘worryingly high’ proportion of economic crime cases are being affected by reporting restrictions, including four of the six foreign bribery trials to come to court in the past two years, and half of the deferred prosecution agreements to date. In most cases, applications for reporting restrictions in economic crime cases are unopposed by the media, partly because the press are not given advance notice of them, it claims.

Corruption Watch also warns that in the Court of Appeal, court documents often cannot be obtained by the public without instructing counsel for criminal cases. On the civil side, it says heavy bureaucracy means it takes weeks to get hold of a single document, with journalists forced to make multiple trips to the court. ‘A London-based reporter can more easily access documents from any US federal court than the Royal Courts of Justice in London [and] transcripts of hearings are prohibitively expensive, often costing more than £20,000 for a three-week trial.’

The report calls for a number of improvements including for prosecutors of economic crime to publish an online court calendar, as well as other documents such as skeleton arguments and sentencing remarks. It says there should be a list of organisations to be routinely notified of any application for reporting restrictions in economic crime cases.

Corruption Watch is calling on the government to commit to court transparency as part of its forthcoming UK Open Government National Action Plan.