Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

The unseen side of justice


In R v Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy, the then Lord Chief Justice Lord Hewart delivered a judgment containing a phrase which has passed into common parlance. Commenting on the need for the legal system to be both transparent and open, he said

…it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.

You would have thought, then, that in this day of the Internet, open data, freedom of information and open government, the principle that justice should be seen to be done would extend to the publication of relevant material on the web by the court service. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. While some courts (notably the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom) do routinely publish hearing lists and judgments on their own website, this is the exception rather than the rule.

There’s a whole lot which could be said about this, but for the sake of brevity I’m only going to mention one particular aspect of it. It used to be the case (or so I’m told, I’ve never actually had reason to do it myself) that if you wanted to know which cases were scheduled for any particular county or crown court on a particular day you could phone them up and they’d tell you.  In the pre-Internet era, that was probably the best and most practical option. It was free (well, no more than the cost of a phone call), and it was accessible to anyone: legal processional, journalist or layman alike. So, in the 21st century, the obvious successor to that system would be for the courts to publish their hearing lists on the web so that anyone can find the information for free (well, no more than the cost of your data connection) – and it would still be accessible to everyone, professional and layman alike. There would even be scope for third party organisations to take the data and produce mashups of it (maybe correlate with the crime figures published on, for example, or create an email alert service for particular courts and cases).

So, what has happened? The answer is that it’s nothing like that. Rather than publish the material themselves, the court service has chosen instead to contract it out to a third party. That in itself wouldn’t be a problem if the new service was run on the same lines as the old – open, accessible to everyone, and free. But, as you’ve probably guessed, it isn’t.

The current, and exclusive, providers of crown and county court hearing lists are Courtel Communications Ltd, via their Courtserve website. While a lot of basic information is accessible on their site without charge, a lot more of it requires a subscription. And even much of that which is free still requires registration, so it isn’t possible to simply browse the site and find the information. More importantly, the Courtserve site appears to be aimed exclusively at legal professionals and what they call “authenticated media”. A company name, telephone number and “business email address” are required fields on the registration form for the free services, something which will severely discourage non-professional use. The licence terms on their website explicitly prohibit any copying or redistribution of the data, which makes it impossible for other organisations to legitimately add value or functionality to it. And, finally, I am also reliably informed that the telephone enquiry service has been discontinued – callers are now referred to Courtserve instead.

I was intrigued enough about this to send in a Freedom of Information request to the court service about their relationship with Courtel and Courtserve.  You can read their full response by following that link, but the executive summary is that Courtel, despite charging for access to it by end users, are not paying anything to the court service for the data. Nevertheless, the court service has given them the exclusive right to distribute it (so no other organisation may do so), and this even extends to an explicit commitment by the court service not to publish the data on their own website.

I’m not opposed in principle to privatisation of public services, so long as it delivers benefits to the taxpayer and the consumer. But this arrangement clearly doesn’t. Courtel are getting all the benefits of a data monopoly, while the taxpayer (via the court service) gets nothing in return as the data is being given to them for free. And the consumer loses out as the restrictive nature of Courtserve means that public access to the information is unduly limited and costly. (Not to mention the fact that Courtel’s contract with the court service requires them, if requested, to pass details of their subscribers to the court service. I wonder how many subscribers are actually aware of that?)

I think this is bordering on scandalous. While other departments of government have made great strides towards opening up their data for public use, the Ministry of Justice and the court service have quietly headed off in the other direction and made access to their data less open instead. It’s time that was changed.

Update: I’ve added a follow-up post to this one in the light of some more information and feedback from Twitter.