Letter to the editor: “Our legal information ecosystem needs root and branch reform.”
I have this theory that it is in the hidden, unsexy areas of the justice system where the most progress can be made. It’s hard to think of something less sexy than court transcripts. And yet after three years of research, I am still finding out ways in which the current system is inefficient, ineffective, un-transparent and a truly terrible waste of public funds. Let me share a few:
•There are around six private transcription companies that have contracts with the Ministry of Justice to provide court transcription services. The 2016 tender allocated the criminal court contracts geographically with the largest contract going to the company with the lowest price, and so on. This means that a transcript of a criminal trial in the North East costs more than a transcript of a criminal trial in London, and there is nothing the customer can do about it.
•The taxpayer (via the Ministry of Justice) pays millions of pounds to transcribe hearings in the senior courts. The taxpayer (via the judiciary) pays millions of pounds to access the legal databases that contain these transcripts – essentially paying twice for the same legal information.
•There are still courts that record hearings on tape. As in tape cassette. Other courts record hearings on proprietary software, which then requires time/money to be spent reformatting it before it can be transcribed.
•The British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) is the repository of free case law and does amazing work on a shoestring budget. However, BAILII, like all other legal publishers, is now publishing, year-on-year, thousands of judgments fewer than it used to five years ago.
We primarily think about access to justice as access to legal advice or representation. But it is also about access to legal information – information that pertains to the litigant themselves or to the legal issue they face.
It’s a problem that not only affects our jurisdiction, but other common law jurisdictions who look to our courts when considering novel issues in their countries. Our legal information ecosystem needs root and branch reform. Let’s hope that our latest secretary of state for justice is brave enough to take this on.