MPs call for single portal for public access to courts


Neill: HMCTS needs to do more to remove barriers

HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) should develop a single digital portal where the public and media can access “full information on court proceedings, court documents and any other relevant information”, MPs said today.

Also, HMCTS or the Law Commission should launch a “comprehensive review” of access to court documents, with “legislation if necessary to clarify the position”, while there needed to be more help for people to access online hearings.

Further, there should be less reliance on commercial legal publishers for lawyers wanting to access court rulings.

In Open justice: Court reporting in the digital age, the House of Commons’ justice select committee said the decline of print media has resulted in court proceedings being “less visible to the public and digital media has so far failed to fill this gap”.

It went on: “The quality of publicly available information can often be poor and basic data about court proceedings unavailable. The committee also heard complaints about a lack of access to key documents submitted to courts making it difficult to follow proceedings.”

The MPs called for a “streamlined process for accessing court documents, including courts lists”, using a digital portal modelled on PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) in the US.

“This should also be used to inform the media of reporting restrictions, including automatic restrictions and notice of applications for reporting restrictions.”

On access to documents referred to in open court, the government and HMCTS “should conduct, or ask the Law Commission to conduct, a comprehensive review and propose legislation if necessary to clarify the position”.

Describing the current situation on court transcripts as “unsatisfactory”, MPs said HMCTS should “explore whether greater use of technology, such as AI-powered transcription, could be piloted to see whether it can be used to reduce the cost of producing [them]”.

Welcoming the broadcasting of Crown Court sentencing remarks, the justice committee called for this to be extended to other courts.

“In principle, we would support the extension of broadcasting and recording to civil trials that do not involve oral evidence.

“In the criminal context, the broadcast and recording of sentencing in magistrates’ courts could also be beneficial. However, we do not support the broadcasting of any elements of criminal trials other than the sentencing remarks of the judge.”

The committee expressed concerns that online procedures introduced in the criminal and civil courts may have been designed to increase efficiency but risked having a negative impact on transparency.

“In particular, the Single Justice Procedure has long been criticised for being insufficiently transparent. We recommend that HMCTS should review the procedure and ensure that it is as transparent as proceedings in open court.”

On access to the family courts, the MPs agreed with the president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew Macfarlane, and his transparency review that media representatives and bloggers should be able to report, subject to restrictions, on cases they observe.

They also backed a proposal to set a target for every family court judge to publish 10% of their judgments.

Among the other recommendations were that HMCTS should reform the way that judgments were collected, stored and published so that there was less reliance on commercial legal publishers.

“The judgments of courts are the product of a publicly funded justice system and the public, the media and the legal sector should not have to pay significant sums for access.”

Sir Bob Neill MP, chair of the justice committee, commented: “Too often, significant patience and tenacity is required to access court proceedings that it is our democratic right to witness.”

He said HMCTS needed to do more to remove barriers, “not just by doing more to publicise information but actually welcoming them in and showing how the justice system works.”

In a separate development, the High Court has rejected an application for an order requiring HMCTS to identify the person who obtained a copy of a court order from the court file and posted it on a web forum with an abusive message.

Mr Justice Nicklin said people had to provide a name and address when requesting court documents to allow the documents to be sent to them.

“A person attending to watch court proceedings is not required to provide his/her name in order to be permitted to exercise their right to sit in the public gallery of proceedings conducted in open court.”

The fact that HMCTS retained a copy of the original request by X for a copy of an order by Master Davison, requiring her to attend court and provide information needed to enforce an unpaid costs order following an unsuccessful libel action, did not make it a “record of the court”.

Delivering judgment in Hayden v Associated Newspapers [2022] EWHC 2693 (KB), Nicklin J said that, as a result, the court did not have jurisdiction to make the order sought by the claimant.

The judge said he was conscious that, in the absence of a definition of ‘records of the court’, he was “having to interpret this term”, which he did by applying the leading Supreme Court ruling in Dring.

“I can only echo the urging by the Supreme Court that there are important questions of principle and practice relating to what records are kept by the court and access to them in the interests of open justice.

“Responsibility for this, in England and Wales, lies principally with the Civil Procedure Rule Committee.”




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