Authors:Legal Action Group
Last updated:2023-09-18
Justice Committee report raises concerns over lack of transparency and access to courts
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Lady Justice close up (Hermann Traub_Pixabay)
The House of Commons Justice Committee has made a number of recommendations to improve public and press access to courts and judgments. In Open justice: court reporting in the digital age. Fifth report of session 2022–23 (HC 339, 1 November 2022), the committee noted that while digitisation of the courts and media have had positive outcomes, access to the courts is inconsistent, with journalists and members of the public often having to ‘overcome significant barriers to identify, attend and follow court proceedings’ (page 3). Witnesses also told the committee of difficulties reporting on proceedings when they were unable to access documents submitted to the courts. The committee recommended that HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) develop a single digital portal for journalists and the public to use to access information on proceedings, court documents and other information.
The committee also raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the Single Justice Procedure, which applies to some summary-only non-imprisonable offences. Introduced in 2015 and used for specified offences under COVID-19 legislation, the procedure allows the police to serve a notice and evidence on the accused without their attendance at court. A judge can accept a written response indicating a guilty plea by post and issue a fine, or, if no response is submitted, a magistrate and a legal adviser try the accused on the evidence in their absence. Defendants can ‘opt out’ of the procedure by pleading not guilty or requesting a hearing. Notably, however, the Crown Prosecution Service plays no role in the procedure. The committee recommended that the government review the procedure and ensure that ‘any information that would have been available had the cases been heard in open court is published in a timely fashion’ (para 130, page 40).
The committee also looked at the problem of access to transcripts of judgments, suggesting a pilot of AI-powered transcription to reduce costs. It encouraged a reduction of reliance on commercial legal publishers for transcripts, noting that ‘[t]he judgments of courts are the product of a publicly funded justice system and the public, the media and the legal sector should not have to pay significant sums for access’ (para 93, page 30). Regarding the criminal courts, the committee recommended that all Crown Court sentencing remarks be published in audio or written form, and suggested that HMCTS look into whether magistrates’ courts sentencing remarks could be recorded and transcribed on request.
Finally, the committee looked specifically at open justice in the family courts. It broadly agreed with the main recommendation at para 35 of Sir Andrew McFarlane’s (president of the Family Division) report, Confidence and confidentiality: transparency in the family courts (Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, October 2021, page 9) that ‘accredited media representatives and legal bloggers ... be able, not only to attend and observe family court hearings, but also to report publicly on what they see and hear’. It also recommended that HMCTS provide the requisite resources for an ‘anonymisation unit’ to allow 10 per cent of family court judgments to be safely published, in line with the president’s publication target.