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Eyes on the court – CourtWatch comes to London

Fionnuala Ratcliffe
02 May 2023
The courtrooms that exist in the popular imagination, and the rights that people are told we have, do not in any meaningful way exist in real life.
CourtWatch Baltimore

Have you ever visited your local magistrates’ court? Mine is Thames magistrates’ court, an imposing building on a main road in Bow and one of the busiest courts in London, but like most people I’ve never been in. 

Most people don’t know they can observe criminal courts, and with few journalists now covering day to day court stories, what happens in magistrates’ courts is seldom seen or reported. 

That’s a pity because what happens there is likely to fall far short of public expectations. One case sticks in my mind from a visit to a Norfolk magistrates’ court in 2019. A Lithuanian man, held in police custody all weekend for driving offences, had his morning hearing delayed while the clerk searched for an interpreter. The hours ticked by until 4pm when the clerk came off the phone saying that apparently the defendant can suddenly speak English. This miracle wasn’t questioned. The hearing went ahead with the man appearing by video link because it was too late to bring him to court. He was sent to prison for 18 weeks and when the screen turned off one of the magistrates said “hopefully he understood”.

Our courts have been subject to profound change since then, and not for the better. Courts are struggling to deal with a backlog which started before the pandemic, but has got much worse. Many of the parties now appear on video. Legal aid funding cuts mean more people are appearing in court without a lawyer, and the continuing lack of diversity within the magistracy may be disadvantaging defendants from racially minoritised communities. 

This year Transform Justice seeks to shed light on what happens in magistrates’ courts by piloting a mass court observation programme, where members of the community observe the daily hearings in court and report what they see. Based on CourtWatch programmes in the USA, citizen volunteers will collect real-time data on what happens in court, becoming the eyes and ears of accountability in the courtroom.

The principles of courtwatching go way back, but a renaissance began in New Orleans fifteen years ago, where communities sought novel ways to recover following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Introduced to bring accountability to the criminal courts, the original focus was on improving the behaviour of prosecutors, judges, defence lawyers and police by showing them they were being watched by community representatives. But the organisers soon found the data gathered by volunteers was a treasure trove which could be used to identify bad practice in the courts, and take action to change it. The CourtWatch NOLA programme, now with six staff and 100 volunteers per year, has had impressive results including:

  • Identifying and targeting poor behaviour by individual judges and prosecutors – based on CourtWatch data the team filed a lawsuit against a judge who was not following the bail criteria. They also identified a judge who was directing everyone to one ankle monitoring company from which he was receiving illegal donations.  
  • Identifying systemic problems and making recommendations for change – a courtwatcher reported a case of two victims who spent seven nights in jail following arrest for not giving evidence in court (due to trauma). The team used the story to testify before the state legislator and get a law passed to end the practice. CourtWatch data on bail amounts (US judges decide the amount of money a defendant has to pay to be bailed, as a guarantee they will show up at court) showed that women arrested for domestic abuse were given higher bail amounts than men, a fact that NOLA then brought to the attention of the court system.
  • Challenging discriminatory police behaviour – during the pandemic, the programme pivoted to scrutinise police use of roadblocks to stop people and arrest them on trivial charges. NOLA gathered data from arrest dockets to see who was getting arrested and for what, which led to a conversation with the chief of police and communication to frontline police about fair use of traffic stops.

The New Orleans project inspired others elsewhere, and there are now 30 or so CourtWatch organisations operating across the US. 

Transform Justice hopes to emulate some of the incredible work of courtwatchers internationally with a pilot in three magistrates’ courts in London. The court observation programme aims to increase community accountability of our courts, and shed a light on what happens there. How many people have legal representation? What proportion of defendants are from minoritised communities? How are young adults treated? Who appears on video link, from where, and how well does it work? How long are cases taking to get through court? What are CourtWatch volunteers’ impressions of the court process? With better data, we can make a stronger case for change.

We also want to test whether the principles of open justice are alive and well or withering on the vine. Magistrates’ courts are open to the public, but very few people attend, and they aren’t always welcomed when they do. Our research officer Jen attended her local magistrates’ court recently and was asked by the district judge in one courtroom to leave and not to come back. In another courtroom she was told to sit somewhere where she couldn’t even see the defendant. 95% of cases end in the magistrates’ courts. CourtWatch will help us see how easy it is (or not) to bear witness to what happens there.

Courtwatching will start over the summer of 2023, so stay tuned. To find out more or discuss the project get in touch at [email protected]

To learn more about court observation listen to our podcast episode on open justice.