What we learned in 2017 (3): The courts

The Online Court

From Paul Magrath:

The Online Court is probably the most significant element in the massive ongoing HMCTS Reform programme, and the one which will have the greatest long term consequences in changing how justice is accessed and administered. The year began with a lecture at Gresham College by Joshua Rozenberg, based on his short e-book The Online Court: will IT work? (covered at http://bit.ly/INL1703magrath). Over the course of 2017, HMCTS has organised a number of feedback events involving key stakeholders (see http://bit.ly/INL1709magrath, http://bit.ly/ICLR1711 and http://bit.ly/ICLR1801). But among those who appear to have been overlooked so far are the general public, and representatives of the media through whom they learn about what goes on in court. Even Joshua Rozenberg, who has done so much to inform the public about the developments, complained on Twitter of the failure to engage the media in the feedback process.

The online court has the potential to take the administration of justice away from the public gaze of traditional open justice. Yet with so many judgments now being published online, and with the development of online filing and case management, there is an opportunity for much greater transparency in terms of online access to case information.

A corollary of the availability of judgments and other primary sources of legal information online is that the media, when reporting it, should link to it. Perhaps for fear of scrutiny, they rarely do. This is an area where the media could themselves be more transparent.

Meanwhile HMCTS, with one foot in the past, have opted somewhat half-heartedly for the retro-futuristic notion of “viewing terminals” in physical court buildings, where court staff will supervise public access to video hearings (where they take place) and to such case information as is made public.

This, for me, is the great opportunity missed in 2017. Other aspects of the Reform programme in 2017 have been heartening and impressive. The level of engagement with court users has been great, but the missing element has been public legal information.

Paul Magrath is Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR and a member of the Transparency Project core group. Email paul.magrath@iclr.co.uk. Twitter @maggotlaw.

Courts and court data

From Judith Townend:

Our courts system is distinctly archaic in its daily practice and a large-scale courts modernisation project is well overdue, so in some ways HMCTS’s ongoing £1 billion programme of reform is a very welcome development, and innovations have the potential to radically improve the experience and outcomes for all sorts of court users. However, many commentators have spent 2017 in a state of some alarm: although HMCTS has undertaken some stakeholder engagement, it is quite restricted in scope and reach. An eye-watering sum of money is being spent on management consultants with apparent under-investment in robust research and public consultation. Initially, some reforms were tied up with the Prisons and Courts Bill 2016-17, and though it had its flaws, at least that opened the process up to public and parliamentary scrutiny. The bill was discontinued, however, in the run-up to the General Election. Some of the main concerns held by lawyers, academics, NGOs and other stakeholders relate to criminal defendants’ and civil litigants’ access to justice with the introduction of new digital courts technology.

My own preoccupation is with public access to data about court processes, an issue which I feel has been given insufficient attention: the question of how data should be disseminated from different types of courts in the 21st century. Now we await a new Courts Bill, as promised in the Queen’s Speech 2017, but everything has gone very quiet on that front. And it’s all change again, with the appointment of a new justice secretary – the fourth in under three years. I’m trying to be optimistic about the forthcoming changes in 2018, but remain worried. Despite the investment in reform, the programme sits in a context of overall budget cuts to the Ministry of Justice – with obvious risks for individuals’ legal rights.

Dr Judith Townend is a lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex and a member of the Transparency Project core group. Email Judith.Townend@sussex.ac.uk. Twitter @JTownend.

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