Open justice may be less of a sacrosanct principle than legal theorists assume – at least among the public – research commissioned by HM Courts & Tribunals Service appears to suggest. ‘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’ are among the conclusions to emerge from focus groups run by Whitehall’s internal thinktank.  

Policy Lab, which describes itself as ‘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’ earlier this month posted a report on a study on the future of open justice in the digital age. It was based on four workshops involving 44 participants who had not interacted with courts in the past five years. 

Policy Lab found ‘a general feeling that justice is open enough’ and that members of the public should not attend court hearings unless they had a good reason. Participants were particularly concerned that justice should not become a source of entertainment, the report stated. 

Challenged with future scenarios involving online access to court proceedings, participants were sceptical about the cost and implications for privacy. ‘There was some concern about the lack of “vetting” if [proceedings] were public (and some assumption that there is currently a vetting process for who can access a court),’ the report said. However, participants were surprised that court listings were not already readily available.

Critics of HMCTS’s reform programme have often cited the threat to open justice from virtual or online proceedings. HMCTS said the focus group research would ‘inform current open justice workstreams under its reform programme’.