Instant justice is one thing, open justice is quite another

It’s a quote which gets trotted out on a regular basis: “Justice must not only be done; it must be seen to be done.” And after a week in which rioters rampaged in towns and cities across England, it’s a phrase which has never rung truer.

Over the past seven days, there has been a lot of talk about quick justice. The police have been quick to issue CCTV images of people they want to arrest while courts have sat through the night to keep cases moving.

And while there’s no doubt that there’s an appetite for quick justice, surely there’s an even bigger appetite for open justice: ie justice being seen to be done.

Here’s the problem: Even if a local newspaper does still cover magistrates court on a daily basis, the task of tracking potentially hundreds of cases is mind-boggling. If cases are deferred for reports or further thought, it’s entirely possible the date for the next hearing will be changed before the next hearing.

The only way to be sure you’ll be court for the next hearing is to keep checking with the listings department. Any reporter will tell you that listings departments tend to be a law unto themselves. Some are brilliant, others act as though they’re a division of ‘The Grid’ on BBC’s ‘Spooks.’

But in an age where we can know about a news story occurring on the other side of the globe within seconds, should we really have to be present in our local court to know what has happened?

The riots of last week have shown how three different police forces have played a part in helping keep the public informed of arrests and prosecutions. Greater Manchester Police appears to have been simply superb. Friday’s Manchester Evening News had a gallery of pictures of those convicted within 48 hours of the riots. Many of those mugshots will have come from the police. Not only does that show justice being done, but it puts faces to the names of those involved. And why not? It has also named people as they have been charged. (Note: the M.E.N has done a brilliant job in staffing court to cover the riots cases – and nothing replaces staffing courts. I’m saying issues mugshots helps the journalist a lot).

In Merseyside, the force has been tweeting the details of people as they are charged. It has also posted them on their website.

West Midlands Police, on the other hand, has been altogether more cagey with information relating to what happens to those arrested. Unlike GMP, it doesn’t appear to have released a single mugshot, while its press release on a special Sunday court sitting failed to mention a single name. Obviously, some people can’t be named for legal reasons (primarily age) but if one force can name names and issue pictures, while another has no problem naming names, why is a third being so vague?

The irony in the West Midlands is that it launched a one-off tweeting session from Birmingham Magistrates a while back to tell people what went on in court. At the time,  Ch Supt Stephen Anderson said the reason behind the tweeting live blog was because there had been a decline in court reporting in recent years and claimed the initiative was designed to make the public more aware of the cases police dealt with.

However, the tweets named no names. That’s not replacing court reporting. I’m not sure what it really achieves, but the GMP and Merseyside Police cases surely show there are better ways to help improve coverage of courts. Some police forces have a rule that they won’t issue mug shots for offences which result in a sentence of less than two years, but as GMP has shown, it doesn’t need to be this way.

For the people of Manchester, justice is being seen to be done. They’re seeing the faces, and the names. In the West Midlands, the police could be doing a lot more to ensure that happens, supporting local news organisations to get the message across. Local media, such as the Birmingham Mail, have done a brilliant job regardless.

It’s surely in the interests of the police to help show that justice is being done, not just by quoting stats and figures – eg 71% of those prosecuted in Birmingham for riots offences have been jailed.

Of course, it’s not just local newspapers, the radio or the TV who would benefit from a more proactive approach. What about hyperlocal news sites?Along with the mainstream media, they played a vital role in getting police information out to people during the riots, so surely it makes sense for the police to properly assist sharing details of the process with follows?

Hyperlocal sites seek to serve and represent their communities, but generally don’t have the time to cover courts. Indeed, some don’t wish to cover court because of a fear of getting something legally wrong. Greater Manchester Police’s proactive approach makes it just as possible for the mugshot of a criminal jailed for looting to appear on the homepage of his local hyperlocal site as it does on the front page of the M.E.N.

It isn’t just the police who could do more. The courts themselves could be much more accountable. As Paul Bradshaw notes, there are some good attempts at opening up the courts around and about, but should it really take third parties to open up the courts?

Surely, we should be able to have a government solution which sees the name of the defendant, part of their address, their date of birth, the offence committed, the verdict and the punishment made freely available.If the case is adjourned, then the daily court report should say so.

Journalists who cover court may hate that idea, but it wouldn’t put them out of a job. We all know how dry court lists can be, and the story normally comes from sitting through the case.

Combined, the forward-thinking attitude of GMP along with a willingness on the parts of the courts service to show they are doing their job can only result in one thing: Demonstrating to everyone that justice isn’t just being done, it’s being seen to be done.

One comment

  1. “Surely, we should be able to have a government solution which sees the name of the defendant, part of their address, their date of birth, the offence committed, the verdict and the punishment made freely available.If the case is adjourned, then the daily court report should say so.”

    I’m still hoping the move to publishing sentencing outcomes that started with Labour will continue, it’s in the MoJ business plan.

    http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/corporate-reports/MoJ/increasing-access-local-criminal-justice.pdf

    I don’t see what the complication is though – all courts should publish all outcomes including the defendant name, address (no house number), charge, verdict/plea and a short description of the charge. It would be easy to remove after a period of time to meet spent conviction rules. Simples.

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