If two people use an online procedure in a magistrates court, or have a video hearing with a magistrate, how will the public know what has happened? Justice must be seen to be done, not become a Schrödinger’s justice where the public and media don’t know what is happening in the box. For the vast majority of people the media is their representative in court. The Ministry of Justice and England’s most senior lawyers published some consultation papers on modernising justice through technology. They were odd papers – more a bundle of issues than an holistic vision for system redesign. But I was very concerned that there was no mention at all of the media as a user of court data and witness to proceedings. It’s a fundamental aspect of system design, to construct processes from the outset that can be witnessed. Dr Judith Townend, Lecturer in Media and Information Law at the University of Sussex has written about this recently so I thought I would publish my response below to add to the debate. I battered out the email in a rush, as ironically the MOJ web form had broken, so it contains the odd typo and inconsistency.
Hello – this is a response to the consultation on justice system reform. i tried to use the online form but it was broken.
I have been a member of the government’s former crime and justice sector transparency panel and long been active in data and modern journalism policy and practice.
I am concerned that the common law tradition of open justice – both access to information about court services and witnessing by the public or their proxies in the media of the judicial process – is underserved in these proposals.
It is of course possible to design a system such that the public can see online or hear telephonic processes, but such an approach only gets a fleeting mention in the consultation document at 1.8 ii as the principles there in are not reflected ignored in the rest of the document.
For instance in 7.24 detailing the new online process there is no mention at all of how this would be done in a manner consistent with open justice.
In the Lords joint statement that is a companion to the consultation, their section on transparency focuses narrowly on one facet of transparency – the Crown Courts – and ignores the 98% of hearings that occur in magistrates courts, where listings are chaotic and opaque.
The Criminal Procedure Rules Committee’s 2013 paper on improving and publishing online criminal courts listings has not been implemented and curiously is not mentioned in the Lords joint statement nor the consultation document.
In the conclusion the Lords write –
‘At their heart, these reforms are about meeting the needs of all those people – judges, magistrates, the legal professions, witnesses, victims, defendants, individual citizens and businesses of all sizes.’
There is no mention of the media, nor people who would wish to witness justice being administered on their behalf.
Overall I would suggest that all data created in the CJS should be published as open data or in such a way as to enable its use by people interested in the system and reduce any harm that might come from the data.
In answer to your
Question 4: Do you think that there any additional considerations which we should factor into this model?
A – The processes set out in the consultation paper show little to nil consideration for open justice at this, the early design stage. Opening up to external parties and the public in general more automated processes is a significant design issue. It is not something that can be bolted on later. The policy process hitherto is deficient in not understanding the needs of users outside the system such as the media, families and friends of participants and the general public who want to know what justice is being administered in their name.
There is a golden opportunity to make a broader statement on opening up data and information in the JS as a whole here while It systems are being reformed that is being missed.
Please feel free to publish this response, having removed my personal data