My previous post on the FOI request about Courtel and HMCTS has already started doing the rounds of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, so I thought I ought to clarify something that maybe wasn’t plain before. I don’t object to Courtel making money from the data – their Courtserve 2000 software (and even the email alert system) is clearly a value added service and they’re fully entitled to charge for it. What I do object to is the fact that Courtel have a monopoly on the data and that monopoly not only makes them the only organisation able to exploit it commercially but it also prevents non-profit organisations, community groups and individuals from using the data effectively. I can see no reason why court lists should not be published by the courts themselves on their own website under an Open Government licence – it would cost them no more than they currently spend on giving it away to Courtel, and it would allow a much wider use than is currently possible. If Courtserve 2000 is as good as Courtel say it is, then allowing competitors isn’t going to hurt them too much. On the other hand, if it’s not as good as it’s claimed to be, then some competition will be in everyone’s interest.
On a separate note, @johnlsheridan on Twitter has alerted me to section 14 of The Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005, which reads
Prohibition of exclusive arrangements
14.—(1) Subject to paragraph (2), a public sector body shall not enter into an exclusive arrangement with any person including an applicant.
(2) A public sector body may, where necessary for the provision of a service in the public interest, enter into an exclusive arrangement.
(3) The validity of the reason for granting the exclusive arrangement under paragraph (2) shall be reviewed at least once every three years.
(4) Any exclusive arrangement permitted under paragraph (2) and entered into on or after 31st December 2003 shall be published by the public sector body.
(5) Any exclusive arrangement which exists on the date of entry into force of these Regulations and to which paragraph (2) does not apply shall be terminated at the earlier of—
(a)the date on which it comes to an end in accordance with its terms; or
(b)31st December 2008.
(6) In this regulation, “exclusive arrangement” means a contract or other arrangement granting an exclusive right to re-use a document.
The contract between HMCTS and Courtel appears, on the face of it, to be illegal under this clause unless there are reasons why such an exclusive arrangement is necessary for the provision of a service in the public interest. I would be very interested in seeing their justification for this arrangement.