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Public access to courts is essential for justice

Penelope Gibbs
23 May 2024

In the past few months, someone who wanted to watch a trial has been ejected from the court, a duty solicitor has allegedly been assaulted by security staff and a lawyer has complained of a security search in which she had her leg felt under her dress up to her inner thigh, stopping barely short of her crotch.

This all happened at Stratford magistrates’ court in east London. The overzealous approach to security may be because of previous incidents of climate change campaigners glueing themselves to the court seats, but the reaction is still over the top.

Magistrates’ courts are, in theory, open to anybody to wander in and watch cases, for whatever reason — even just to kill time while sheltering from the rain. However, few people know that they are free to enter, so justice is not “seen to be done” nor scrutinised. Transform Justice promoted courtwatching and recruited more than 80 Londoners to observe their local court cases. Our new reports reveal their experiences. Fortunately, no courtwatchers faced hostility; in fact, most said court security staff were respectful, but there were still barriers.

Too many courtwatchers were asked why they were in the court, as if they had to justify their presence. One was asked for ID and told they had to get permission to watch court hearings. They complied, but shouldn’t have been asked.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to watching magistrates’ cases is finding out what on earth is going on. Court lists of cases give very little information and were described as “a work of fiction” by courtwatchers anyway. Within the court, it’s hard to understand what is happening. Courtwatchers also found it difficult to hear — hearings were consistently audible only 23 per cent of the time. And, because of poor sightlines, courtwatchers sometimes couldn’t see the defendants or the magistrates.

The most confident and committed courtwatchers persevered and, in the end, made sense of what was going on, but it shouldn’t be so difficult. If the proceedings were confusing to them, they must be equally baffling to defendants and witnesses.

The senior judiciary aspire to make justice open. Mr Justice Nicklin, chair of a new judicial Transparency and Open Justice Board, said recently that “the importance of seeing justice done is an essential foundation of democracy” and that he is determined to build on the UK’s “strong record”. So far, so good. But if he and the judiciary really want to make the courts welcoming, I urge them to check out courts in person. Go incognito to the Old Bailey or to a busy magistrates’ court and judge for yourself how easy it is to get in and to work out what on earth is going on.