Open online justice – what do you think?
22 March 2011
As the Cearta.ie blog reminds us this morning, the late Lord Bingham saw accessibility, intelligibility and predictability as central requirements for the effective rule of law. It is also central to the human right to a fair trial. On that theme, Lord Neuberger, the head of the court of appeal, gave a speech last week which sought to push that agenda forward in the internet age.
But what comes next? In order to push forward the open justice agenda, ideas will have to be practically worked through, and funded. Please use the comments section of this post to let us know what you think, what you make of the ideas in Neuberger’s speech and whether you have any ones of your own.
A good starting point for this conversation is the legal bloggers, who generally speaking seek to bring the public closer to the legal system through modern technology, and have been predictably enthusiastic about Neuberger’s speech: see Meeja Law, UKSC Blog, Halsbury’s Law Exchange, Inforrm, ObiterJ, Charon QC and the UCL Constitutional Unit which called my own response “almost gushing“.
Neuberger’s proposals were, in summary (references to paragraph numbers in the speech):
1. Judgment-writing lessons for judges along the line of advocacy training for barristers to make them “clear and easily interpretable by lawyers. And also to non-lawyers” (27)
2. Tweeting in court to “inform and engage interested members of the public”, so long as it does not interfere with the hearing (36)
3. Televising Supreme Court hearings via the internet, perhaps using the iPlayer or a dedicated channel (34). I have been proposing this for a while. The Supreme Court have said it “is extremely resource-intensive for us to convert our footage to domestic level DVDs or other output formats“. Those with technical know-h0w: would it? Are there any media organisations who would be willing to cover the start-up costs? (34)
4. Short judgment summaries should be produced along the lines of the excellent Supreme Court press summaries. This would clearly cost money. I do not know how the system works in the Supreme Court; I have always assumed that the judicial assistants take on this role. Other courts, such as the court of appeal, have judicial assistants but they also produce a lot more judgments. So this would probably need some extra investment. It would be worth it, however, especially given Lord Neuberger’s (as well as many legal bloggers’) comments on inaccurate legal reporting, which would hopefully be prevented at source by the production of accessible, plain-language judgment summaries. (42)
5. Foster the developing community of legal bloggers of legal bloggers and encourage public legal education. The legal blogging community is developing quickly at the moment, and hopefully this will be clear by the next #lawblogs event on 19 May 2011 at the Law Society (ticket info coming soon). One important role which the legal bloggers play is challenging what they see as inaccurate legal reporting (42). Could they be doing more?
Another area which I think is important is the availability of “raw law”, that is, legislation, online to the public. At present there is no reliable way for a member of the public to find an accurate and up to date account of the law of the land. The online legislation website run by the government is only occasionally updated, so the only way of reliably knowing what law is currently enacted is by way of expensive (thousands of pounds per year) services such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. This is a poor state of affairs. Thanks to the heroic efforts of BAILII, the same cannot be said about case law but there is still much that could be done in this regard (see this post).
As Neuberger’s speech suggests, it is not the judges’ responsibility to act as an “idiot’s guide” to the justice system (that is the lawyers’ job), but they must “do everything reasonably practical to enable the public to have access so as to see what is going on in court, provided that it does not interfere with the trial process“. And, as he argues:
Public scrutiny of the courts is an essential means by which we ensure that judges do justice according to law, and thereby secure public confidence in the courts and the law.
A laudable aim. What comes next? Follow the links to the bloggers above and my previous posts below. Then use the comments section, and we can think about how to turn the ideas into an online foundation for the rule of law.
Sign up to free human rights updates by email, Facebook, Twitter or RSS