The UK Supreme Court began tweeting yesterday as @UKSupremeCourt to deserved international fanfare. Some even speculated that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition fate could now be revealed on Twitter.
The court is already being followed by almost 4,000 Twitter users (for the uninitiated, that is a lot) and has already beaten its own Twitter policy’s prediction of “2-3 tweets a week” with eight on its first day. The eventful debut tweets included seven live updates on the swearing-in ceremony of the court’s newest Justice, Lord Reed, and one relenting to Twitter user @FOImanUK‘s valid point that contrary to the court’s stated policy, it should be possible to put freedom of information requests to the court via Twitter.
This is all excellent news. The UK’s newest and highest appeal court is now setting the international standard for open justice, with its splendid press summaries of judgments, live transmission of hearings online (today’s is a very interesting case about the state’s financial responsibility towards disable people), accessible court facilities and generally public-facing approach. This is also as it should be: the Court has a statutory duty to be “accessible”. But the Supreme Court, which is largely independent from the rest of the court system, is now streaking ahead of it in terms of access to justice. And this open justice gap is becoming a problem.
For the relatively few rulings emerging from and hearings held at the Supreme Court each year (just over 1 on average per week), the public now has access through a number of different media. But what about decisions of the “lower” courts? These account for the vast majority of rulings in the UK. For very important Court of Appeal and High Court rulings, the Judiciary’s website publishes judgments and, in a very few selected cases, summaries. For those few rulings, the Judiciary’s website also has a Twitter feed, @JudicaryUK.
But this is not enough. The European Court of Human Rights, which releases judgments almost every day, manages to produce press summaries for most of them, and certainly all of the important ones. Its website is not perfect but contains a wealth of statistical and judgment data, including fact sheets about key issues and up-to-date profiles of states which are subject to the courts. This is in direct contrast to the UK court system, which relies on and to an extent funds the fantastic free service BAILII to release judgments, but provides little else.
The Ministry of Justice has said that some hearings of the lower courts will soon be broadcast live. But progress has been slow, such that the BBC, ITN and Sky News wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday urging him to hurry up with the reforms, which will require legislative amendment of the longstanding law banning cameras in court.
It is time for the lower courts to catch up with the Supreme Court. Judgment summaries should be the rule, not the exception. Lord Neuberger, the head of the court of appeal, has publicly supported this idea; the Court of Appeal should lead the way. Like the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal judges have Judicial Assistants who I imagine help with researching cases. They could straightforwardly convert their work into succinct judgment summaries. This would improve public access to court judgments, which are getting longer and longer thanks to the scourge of “copy and paste”. It would also help the press to report judgments accurately when they are released.
And millions of people are now on Twitter. Why not use this medium, which provides direct access to the public without need for the often distorting lens of the media, to explain to people what their courts are doing and how the law is changing? The Supreme Court is leading the way as a modern court, and justice has benefited. Its example should not just be praised by the Ministry of Justice, it should be followed.
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