For justice to be seen to be done, judgments given in open court must be accessible in two senses. They must be clearly written so that a reasonably well informed member of the public can understand what is being decided. But they must also be available to the public, and in this sense their accessibility depends on their being reported.
Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, so stated in the first BAILII annual lecture, hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP at their premises in Fleet Street last night. The full speech can be read here.
The Guardian published an editorial today arguing that court judgments should be opened up to the public. The editorial challenges the fact that BAILII, the charity which currently publishes most judgments online, is not searchable on Google.
Broadly speaking, it is good to see The Guardian taking up this somewhat esoteric but important topic. As I have argued on a number of occasions (see e.g. Making Law Accessible to the Public) the Ministry of Justice needs to do more to make “raw” law, that is judgments and legislation, accessible online. But it is important to focus on the right issues.
Case law should, ideally, be searchable on Google. BAILII explains the reason for not making it so:
By all accounts, it has been a gloomy year for access to justice. The legal aid budget is to be reduced by £350m and state assistance has effectively disappeared in non-criminal cases. The overall justice budget, which is already low by international standards, is to be cut by a further 23%. But believe it or not, there may be reasons to be cheerful.
In the virtual world, legal blogs are becoming an established voice in the UK legal community and the flourishing blogosphere has given the public a lively, accessible and most importantly free new way of engaging with the law. With legal aid becoming scarcer and Citizens Advice Bureaus losing their funding, free information services such can be the last resort for those who seek legal help without having to pay for a lawyer.
But none of these services would exist without their hidden backbone: BAILII. To that end, when Legal Week published its excellent review of legal blogging last month, the failure to mention BAILII caused a min-revolution from a gaggle of legal bloggers in the comments section.