Open Justice project aims to shed light on Scottish courts that normally go unreported
From Jon Robbins in the Guardian today
Next week marks the start of a potentially fascinating experiment that aims to shine some light on those under-exposed parts of the justice system. Open Justice Week is a Scottish initiative that aims to use blogging, Twitter and Facebook to 'increase the transparency and accountability of the justice system'.
For better and worse, the relentless incursion of social media is a defining feature of modern day life. Its appearance in our courts, and clashes with the law, have become commonplace. The last few weeks have seen the so-called #obscenitytrial (to use its Twitter hashtag) (a failed prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act that gay porn was capable of being 'depraving and corrupting'), and a High Court appeal of the #twitterjoketrial which concerns an accountant who, jokingly, tweeted a threat to blow Robin Hood airport 'sky high' if it remained shut.
Both cases involved tweets of fewer than 140 characters, sent by non-lawyers, that resulted in complex legal argument. The live Twitter commentary of both events varied from insightful to the unenlightening - but near-contemporaneous commentary is a compelling innovation.
However, there are some fundamental 'dos and don'ts' for would-be court reporters, not least the matter of the laws of contempt. The lord chief justice has sanctioned tweeting from court in England and Wales as long as it does not interfere with the administration of justice and the tweeter (unless a journalist or legal commentator) obtains the judge's permission. But tweets from outside the courtroom have posed problems, notably those of Joey Barton, who expressed views about the John Terry trial. The attorney general investigated but declined to pursue Barton, who declared himself ready to become a martyr for free speech. (If you decide to give it a go, I suggest you check out the JusticeGap guide to court reporting (Scottish readers, try Open Justice's guide).
"We want to create a snapshot of where British justice is in 2012, and we want as many people as possible to join us," says James Doleman, one of the people behind the Scottish Open Justice project. Doleman is best known as the man behind the Tommy Sheridan trial blog.
Why did his experiences at the Sheridan trial lead to the Open Justice initiative? "It was my first big trial," he told me. "There were big divergences between what I was seeing in court every day and what I was reading in the newspapers." Doleman was a member of the Scottish Socialist party, but left in 2004. "Originally the plan was to write a book about the case. I knew most of the characters. But what the experience revealed was that there was a great appetite for detailed court reporting as to what happens in court without any opinions."
Doleman describes the journalists who covered the trial as "great, really helpful. 'But they have limited space and the newspapers have an agenda. Certainly, in the Sheridan case the newspapers concentrated on sex and sensation, not on the detail." The idea behind his blog, he explains "was to provide more objective court reporting ... Court reporting has become a dying art," he says. "People just don't do any more."
Quite. As the Guardian's Nick Davies put it in his book Flat Earth News, judges are "as likely to see a zebra as a reporter" in most courts outside the Old Bailey and the Royal Courts of Justice.
Doleman argues that social media and the Open Justice project could be an opportunity to "almost reinvigorate and recreate" court reporting. It's a noble aspiration, but clearly "citizen journalism" (whatever that means) has its limits. Perhaps the greatest value of his project lies elsewhere. Doleman described to me his shock at visiting Glasgow sheriff court when it was dealing with evictions. "It's like something out of Charles Dickens. They are throwing up to 70 people an hour out of their homes. It's just like bang, bang, bang... one after the other. We want to open up the courts to public scrutiny."
I know what Doleman means. "Dickensian" was the word that came to mind when I visited Dover county court one Wednesday morning in April 2008 on repossessions day. I wrote about that experience and later in The Justice Gap: Whatever happened to legal aid (Legal Action Group, 2009). That morning presiding judge District Judge Parnell had 35 cases listed. "People often arrive traumatised," Jacqui O'Carroll, who then ran the local CAB's court advice desk, told me, "totally ill-informed, and prepared to lose everything."
People were losing the roof over their heads, often unnecessarily through ignorance of the law, having been misled about their rights and without legal advice. As O'Carroll explained to people in the court waiting room, borrowers are entitled to repay debts over the remaining period of the mortgage no matter what lenders say (as laid down in 1995 landmark ruling Cheltenham & Gloucester v Norgan). At the time of that visit, the Legal Services Commission, which runs the legal aid scheme, funded 94 advice services out of 230 county courts.
It seems to me that 'open justice' can shine a light on the real experience of ordinary people in the courts. We are about to enter a period where the legal aid scheme is going to be filleted - £350m of publicly funded law will be stripped from the £2.2 billion budget. Shockingly, that includes nearly all social welfare (money, debt, employment, housing) legal advice. To put this into perspective, there were 53,800 family cases last year where individuals received legally aided representation before the courts (plus a further 211,000 cases where people received initial advice). All family cases are to be scrapped under the legal aid scheme unless there is evidence of domestic violence. Our courts are going to be hit by a wave of unrepresented litigants. They will become 'the rule rather than the exception', as the Civil Justice Council said last November.
If this project exposes that and helps to lessen the consequences of such devastating cuts, it will be doing everyone a service.