Crime and anti-social behaviour are the most challenging topics local websites have to tackle. But most local sites don’t want to add to local fear of crime by just reporting incidents – we want to publish results and support our local criminal justice professionals in the police, crown prosecution service, courts and prisons. Finding out what is going on in local courts would be very useful.
Ante-diluvian court processes combine with the minefield of contempt of court to make it tricky to write about local justice being done. As a local web publisher in an area with a long, tragic history of ASB with a sizable local audience I’d like daily court results and timetables posted to a courts website, preferably with an RSS feed. After all, you can go to the court and watch from the gallery or see the screens. So this little noticed (by me) excerpt from a Ministry of Justice green paper earlier this year seems wrong to me.
‘210. It is clear that there needs to be a balance between providing communities with information on court outcomes, which is in the public domain, and the need to ensure that such information is not misused. This issue is particularly pertinent because of the power of the internet to collect and make available information from a wide range of sources, and the difficulties of regulating the way in which such information is stored and reused.
211. We believe that it is not in the public interest to facilitate the creation of uncontrolled, privately held databases, and therefore intend to place the following restrictions on how information is accessed: Access to court outcomes online will require registration at level 1 of the e-Government standards66 to provide substantial assurance that the registrant’s identity has been verified. Registered users will be able to choose to see results for two courts of their choice; changing these preferences will require application to the systems administrator. Users will then be able to search all results from these two courts from the past four weeks. Information on the website will be copy protected so that it cannot be copied and pasted into other documents.
212. A prototype of the website will be made available for the duration of the Green Paper consultation.67 This will report specifically on the outcomes of knife possession cases tried in the adult magistrates’ courts, supporting the current initiative on tackling knife crime. Comments are invited on the level of security and accessibility of information. We will also look at how we can link this website to the continuing development of crime maps, to support the aim of ensuring that members of the public can get the maximum information about crime, policing and justice in a joined-up way from a linked set of sources, at as local a level as possible.’
Engaging Communities in Criminal Justice Cm 7583 April 2009, Page 81′
I appreciate the argument about long term rehabilitation and spent convictions, but this piece suggests that websites are different from newspapers, which are now almost wholly online. If say The Times or the Islington Gazette reports an individual arrest, charge or trial in progress in the paper, it also appears online. At no point do the articles link forward to the outcome of the trial if the subject is found innocent. They effectively create a primitive unregulated database online. And whilst i enjoy working with the police, even the best forces would admit they have a very long way to go to publish criminal justice outcomes in a way that reassure local people.
What do people think of this position – is it reasonable or is it out of kilter? Is it worth lobbying to change it? Do we think that the senior politicians who recently gathered in Downing Street to talk open data are aware of it? As it is a green paper from Ministry of Justice, this usually means that minds are open and can be influenced.
I guess i must share some blame for the Ministry of Justice position as I had worked inside the system up to that point (declaration) but i feel this doesn’t stick to the principles of the power of information work i was involved in.
I found this local website – Wigan World that has a very useful, easy to follow and searchable list of local magistrates court results. This seems to be an ideal way to proceed, justice being seen to be done by the community at large.
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