The House of Commons Justice Committee has warned that the court system needs to do more to support open justice in the digital age.
In its new report ‘Open justice court reporting in the digital age’, which cites research and evidence carried out by University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) researchers, it calls for a renewed focus in the court system to remove barriers to the media and members of the public coming to court proceedings.
It also calls for more work to be done to support digital platforms to cover court decisions.
UWE Bristol Associate Professor Tom Smith, Senior Lecturer Marcus Keppel-Palmer from the School of Law, Associate Professor Bernhard Gross, and Senior Lecturer Sally Reardon from School of Creative and Cultural Industries submitted evidence to the Committee inquiry.
Their evidence was based on research carried out during the first lockdown, where the researchers interviewed court reporters about their experiences of covering court cases remotely. The report cites the research in several places saying: “...academics from the University of the West of England argued that court lists needed to be published online for all courts with sufficient information for reporters and members of the public. ”
Their research revealed the challenges faced by journalists reporting on online criminal court cases during the pandemic, including implications on quality and depth of reporting and its potential impact on open justice. More about the research findings can be found on the Research Business and Innovation blog site.
In the report the Committee calls for a new approach across the court system that makes it clear that access for the media and members of the public is a fundamental element of open justice. The Courts and Tribunal Service should develop a single digital portal where the media and public can access full information on court proceedings, court documents and any other relevant information.
Consideration should also be given to how the service can fill the gaps in media coverage by improving direct communication with the public and better facilitating court reporting. Every court should have a publicised point of contact that supports access, provides information and answers queries. Open days would also send a clear message that anyone is welcome and break down barriers that could prevent people attending.
Dr Tom Smith, one of the co-authors of the report, commented: “The system wasn’t perfect but our research shows that journalists and court officials worked really hard at making sure that closing court rooms to the public didn’t mean closing justice to public scrutiny in this moment of crisis. In the long run though, with more and more justice proceedings likely to move online and stay out of court rooms, it’s important to put systems and checks in place that uphold and facilitate open justice in this new normal.”
Dr Sally Reardon, another of the co-authors, commented: “One thing that struck me is how journalists mentioned that — yes sometimes being kind of there was made easier by being online — but also stressed how important it was for them to be in the court room. So much of their reporting also relies on the relationships they’ve built over time. This just highlights that it’s not one or the other. It’s not fully online or fully in real life; both have their pros and cons.”