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CourtWatch London

Mass observation of the magistrates’ courts

What happens in the magistrates’ courts can have a huge impact on the lives of individuals and communities. But many of these decisions happen behind closed doors, where injustice can go unnoticed and unrecorded. CourtWatch London was a mass court observation project where citizen volunteers observed magistrates’ court hearings and reported what they saw. 

The project aimed to:

  • Increase community ownership and oversight of our magistrates’ courts.
  • Improve our understanding of what actually happens in court, to strengthen the case for policy and practice change for more just decision-making.
  • Find out what public observers thought of what they witnessed in magistrates’ courts.
  • Explore the potential of community courtwatching in England and Wales.

Open justice in the magistrates’ courts

How easy are the magistrates’ courts to access, navigate and understand? This report summarises courtwatchers’ experiences of trying to observe magistrates’ court hearings in London.

Despite courts in principle being open to any who want to observe, our volunteers faced many barriers to seeing how justice is done. Audibility issues, inaccurate court lists and courtroom jargon made it difficult for courtwatchers to work out what was happening. Volunteers were often asked to justify their presence by those working in the court. This points to a court system that has deprioritised public access. Our report includes ten ways to make our magistrates’ courts more open and accessible.

Courtwatchers on court decision making

How are defendants treated in the magistrates’ court? And what do public volunteers think of the justice delivered there?

This report summarises courtwatchers’ observations of the court process and decision-making in London magistrates’ courts. It provides new data on defendants’ treatment, including the prevalence and impact of the secure dock, video hearings, legal representation and interpreters. It summarises what courtwatchers thought of the behaviour of magistrates and district judges, the quality and fairness of the decisions they made, and the efficiency of the court process. 

Is maturity considered in the magistrates’ court?

How are young adults treated in the magistrates’ courts? How, if at all, is their maturity considered and taken into account by the court? This report answers these questions based on observations of almost 200 hearings involving young adult defendants.

Courtwatcher testimony shows that maturity is often not mentioned or considered by the magistrates’ court, and almost never in a specific way. When maturity was mentioned, it did sometimes prompt the court to reduce the severity of the sentence given, or at least to postpone sentencing until they had more information. But most of the time, maturity was dismissed by court decision makers or deprioritised compared to other factors.