An article in the Guardian Organ Grinder blog, titled “Local newspaper industry needs radical action now if it is to survive” laments the incipient passing of much of the country’s local newspaper industry. I don’t disagree with the article’s analysis of the issues, but it ends with a question that I think deserves an answer:
Bloggers will have their part to play, but the fundamental question remains: who will cover Hartlepool magistrates court on a wet Wednesday afternoon? It will not be a well-meaning amateur and has to be a professional journalist – the issue is how will it be paid for?
I think there’s a flawed assumption in the question. Namely, the belief that Hartlepool magistrates court needs to be covered on a wet Wednesday afternoon, because otherwise nobody will know what happened and what verdicts were handed down.
In the past, that would have been the case, simply because there was no easy way of disseminating that information other than via the press. But it isn’t the case any more. Now, court decisions don’t need to be restricted to dusty tomes in a legal library, they can be published on the Internet and made available for everyone to see. For example, here’s a case from Hartlepool magistrates court. That’s on the web here because it happens to concern a celebrity, but the basic information exists for every case.
There is no technical reason why every court in the land should not, as a matter of routine, publish all its decisions on the web. At the top, the Supreme Court already does. Most other higher courts, including the High Court of England and Wales, make their judgments available to the third-party website operated by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII). But it’s still a piecemeal approach, and it doesn’t extend to lower courts such as the crown courts, county courts and magistrates courts – the places where the vast majority of cases are heard.
In the past, this didn’t matter so much, because the majority of courts are attended by the media and anything interesting does get reported. But we can’t rely on that in the future, as the Guardian article makes clear. That’s why it’s all the more important now to start taking steps towards a consistent and universal system of judgment publication.
I’ve blogged in the past about how the court system seems to go out of its way to avoid open publication of things like court listings. I still think it’s bordering on the scandalous that the court service has no in-house publication department which can maintain a web-based database. Give that the department already has a website which could carry the data, I don’t believe that the marginal cost of doing so would significantly exceed the amount paid by the Ministry of Justice to BAILII to publish judgments on the MoJ’s behalf. But the benefits to the public interest would be immense. Apart from nothing else, it would mean we’d no longer need to rely on journalists to tell us how much a pop star was fined by a magistrate for speeding on the M6. Instead, they could do more useful things, like attend local council meetings….