The government’s small step today towards televising some courts business is welcome. It’s surreal that these public institutions, with a strong tradition of viewing by citizens should not be on TV and radio. But there is a much bigger opportunity here – to open up to the whole of society information on what happens in the local and national courts.
If you go to a court sit in the public gallery as a member of the public and make notes you can find out who gets sentenced to what. But if you don’t go you have no way of finding out. Courts are almost completely opaque to the citizenry as i wrote a couple of years ago when trying to get basic results data about local crime. It’s almost as if the presiding judges and magistrates are embarrassed by their work. The press have in large part given up on reporting routine business in courts, tending through economic pressures to focus only on the most sensational crimes in local papers. And even the Today programme this morning instantly acknowledged that this is what the media would do with televised trial sentencing. I also get reports of bizarre behaviours by court staff that thwart reporting of courts by specialist press agencies.
In managing courts data there are legitimate issues around helping prevent discrimination against people who have served their sentence. But the approach is an Orwellian one that tries to obscure public information about the sentence you were given, trying to delete history under the concept of spent offences. It’s substantially out of kilter with other discrimination legislation and according to current government rhetoric on the riots has the balance of public interest wrong. The concept of spent offences is deeply embedded in the justice system and there’s a huge public policy conundrum here that no one is grasping.
I am a member of the Transparency Panel for Crime and Justice and will help the panel tackle this as part of our work. One suggestion is that we find a Crown and Magistrate court with a presiding judge/magistrate that wants to run an experiment in open data. Views welcome in the comments.
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