While the doors of our adult courts in the UK are unlocked and anyone can just walk in and observe what’s going on they don’t effectively operate in an open and transparent manner.
Our courts fail to pro-actively and openly publish information about what they are doing. I would like to see the court lists (details of upcoming hearings, trials etc. with the names of the defendants and details of charges) pro-actively published and kept up to date, along with the court registers (records of decisions, sentences etc.). I think we should all be easily able to track, monitor and scrutinise what goes on in our courts.
- I demonstrate that a Freedom of Information request can result in the release of a magistrates court list in a reasonably timely manner (my response took 6 days). I have included the text of this request and explained how I made it to assist others.
- I explain why I am not making my FOI response available in full online : it contains material that it is illegal to publish.
- I am publishing example court lists in full for selected upcoming sittings to be held at Cambridge Magistrates Courts, as well as further selected individual listed items in full too. I believe this is the first time this has been done.
My FOI Request for Court Lists
On the 9th of January 2013 I made the following freedom of information request to the Courts and the Tribunals Service:
Dear Courts and the Tribunals Service,
Could you please release the information which would be expected to appear on the full copy of the court list in relation to appearances, hearings, trials etc. currently scheduled to be held in Cambridge Magistrate’s Court in [specified five court sitting days redacted - explanation below]
Surprisingly, and commendably, my request was reasonably promptly answered, in full, on the 15th of January.
While I made the request in public via the freedom of information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com (directed to the Courts and the Tribunals Service). It has been hidden from public view there as the identity of victims of crimes people were being charged with, including a girl under 14 who was named in relation to an indecent assault charge, were released.
If the Courts and the Tribunals Service had a responsibility to remove such information prior to releasing the information is an interesting question. This is information anyone can obtain either by making the same freedom of information request I did, or by turning up to the court and asking for a copy of the court list on the day of the hearing, or indeed by sitting in the court and hearing the charges being read out.
If any other public body had released such highly sensitive information then the Information Commissioner would investigate, and it is possible that fines could be levied on the organisation and perhaps individual staff too.
Reporting of information which could identify the victim of a sexual offence is contrary to The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 as amended by Schedule 6, paragraph 31 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, risking in the worst case a £5,000 fine. The law has an incredibly broad scope, an offence is committed by publishing any material which could lead to the identification of a victim. Since such cases are routinely heard in Cambridge’s courts, a copy of any week’s court lists will probably contain some – is pointing that fact out an offence? What about pointing out the court list for a specific period does? (I’ve redacted the date period from my request to avoid this possibility). What about saying if you sit in court for a morning you might well hear such information – is that an offence? Am I committing an offence of publishing material which could lead to the identification of a victim by including the link to my, now hidden, FOI request – perhaps some search engine or archive scraper took a copy and that will make the information obtainable in the future?
Another way of phrasing these questions is: “Am I allowed to explain why am not publishing, in full, the information I have obtained as a result of my Freedom of Information request?”
There are parallels with defamation law, in that there are certainly innocuous sounding FOI requests I cannot mention or quote because doing so would point people to illegally defamatory material.
A problem we have in this country generally is that many laws are so broadly written that almost everyone is committing some kind of offence at any time and should the state decide to arbitrarily take action against almost any individual they can; I think this is a highly undesirable state of affairs.
Personally I am uncomfortable with identifying publicly any victims of crime identified in the court lists I have received and therefore have not done so.
Generally Publishing Information in Court Lists
The vast majority of information in a magistrates court list can be published freely, thanks to the exemptions in paragraph Section 8(4) of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 which makes clear that in relation to pre-trial hearings the following, among other things, can be published:
- (b)the names, addresses and occupations of the parties and witnesses and the ages of the accused and witnesses;
- (c)the offence or offences, or a summary of them, with which the accused is or are charged;
That covers the key information which is shown on the court list.
I would like to see the courts service redact information it is illegal to publish from court lists and make them available online.
Examples of Released Information
This is a traffic court list.
It includes someone facing charges of speeding on the road I live on, Milton Road, in Cambridge. The list states: “The speed recorded by means of a laser speed detection device was 36 miles per hour.”, this relates to an event on in July 2012 and is only reaching court in February 2013 – this appears a rather long time for a straightforward case. There are other cases of action being taken for speeding in 30 limits in Cambridge below 40 mph, there’s a listing relating to “High Street, Trumpington at a speed exceeding the legal limit of 30 miles per hour. The speed recorded by means of an automatic radar camera was 38 miles per hour”.
There are also examples of people facing court action on charges of travelling at 80 MPH on the A14, both relating to average speed cameras near Bar Hill and as a result of the police operating “manned equipment”. I was surprised to see action taken for travelling at 80 MPH on a dual carriageway.
This is a mixed list containing :
- Theft from a shop
- Drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road / in a public place without due care and attention
- Many drugs offences
This is a list for two trials relating to motoring matters in Cambridge:
- Fail to provide specimen for analysis – vehicle driver
- M/v fail comply with red / green arrow / lane closure flashing light signals – detected by means other than ACD (Hills Road / Station Road Junction)
Public Order Offences
15/02/2013 Cambridge Magistrate’s Court – Court 3
Block: 12:00 – 13:00 Adult Trial
Mr Thomas George Culverhouse CULVERHOUSE-CLARK 77A Birdwood Road, Cambridge, CB1 3ST Solicitor: Thomson, Webb & Corfield
Informant: POL2 URN: 35SP0550112
DOB: 03/03/1975 Age: 37
1 PU86107 Use threatening words / behaviour to cause harassment alarm or distress On 27/11/2012 at Cambridge in the County of Cambridgeshire used threatening abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby Contrary to section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986. Contrary to section 5(1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986. MAX. PENALTY: S: L3 Plea: NG Plea Date: 12/12/2012 Adjourned from 12/12/2012, for the trial
This case may be of interest as there are currently proposals to change the law on using “insulting” words; it would be interesting to see how the law is currently having an impact in Cambridge.
Block: 10:15 – 10:30 Adult Summonses
Mrs Iva Sandra-Ann BRADLEY 20 Clevedon Road, Luton, Bedfordshire, LU2 9ED
Informant: BTP URN: 93LT1411112
DOB: 27/04/1959 Age: 53
1 RT88575 Drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road / in a public place without due care and attention On 26/10/2012 at Foxton in the county of Cambridgeshire drove a mechanically propelled vehicle, namely a red Ford Ka X238 ELC, on a road, namely Foxton railway level crossing on the A10 without due care and attention. Contrary to section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. On 26/10/2012 the defendant drove a red Ford Ka X238 ELC on Foxton railway level crossing on the A10 without due care and attention in that . MAX. PENALTY: S: L5 LE 3-9pp
Dr Beris Mary COX
DOB: 02/08/1948 Age: 64
151 Browns Lane, Staonton-on-the-Wolds, Keyworth, Nottingham, NG12 5BN
1 RT88575 Drive a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road / in a public place without due care and attention On 16/10/2012 at Foxton in the county of Cambridgeshire drove a mechanically propelled vehicle, namely a grey Volkswagen Touran FP09 FNR, on a road, namely Foxton railway level crossing on the A10 without due care and attention. Contrary to section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. On 16/10/2012 the defendant drove a grey Volkswagen Touran FP09 FNR on Foxton railway level crossing on the A10 without due care and attention in that . MAX. PENALTY: S: L5 LE 3-9pp
Foxton Railway Crossing Cases
Events at Foxton Level Crossing are often reported in the press, and cause concern as this is a hazardous location where the fast train between London and Cambridge crosses a main road.
15/02/2013 Cambridge Magistrate’s Court – Court 1
Other listed items include:
- Many cases of “fail to notify change of circumstances affecting your entitlement to social security benefit / other payment” involving local councils.
- Cause unnecessary suffering to a protected animal (a dog) – Animal Welfare Act 2006
- Threaten a witness/juror
- Appeal of a noise abatement notice
- Assault by beating
- Review progress of drug rehabilitation requirement
- Assault a constable in the execution of his / her duty ( in Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright’s home village of Fordham)
- On the 12th of February 2013 in Courtroom 2 at 11am there is a trial scheduled re: charges of sheet metal theft from Thorlabs Ltd in Ely.
Why I Want Greater Transparency From Our Courts
I want to live in a safer society, with lower levels of crime and fewer crime related injuries and deaths. When it comes to tackling criminality we need to be able to see where problems lie. We should be able to seek to address questions such as: “Is the work of the police being undermined by excessively lenient courts?”. I would like to be able to see if actions by councillors such as introducing new speed limits or setting up dispersal zones are effective and how the courts treat people charged with offences relating to breaching them, this would inform my lobbying and campaigning on such matters and perhaps even affect which way I vote. I would like to be able to find out when people are in court for offences committed in my local area, or in relation to subjects I am interested in. I would also like to be able to make my own judgements on if sentencing is fair, proportionate and effective with a view to making suggestions for improving the way we run our society, reducing re-offending and reducing crime.
We need to have openness and transparency in our courts so we as individuals can find out how society as a whole expects us to act, and what the penalties are for breaching our laws. The published sentencing guidelines, judgements and those laws available on legislation.gov.uk provide a guide but more can be gleaned from observing our courts system work in practice.
My Previous Related FOI Requests
In April 2010 I made a Freedom of Information request for details of Upcoming Cases at Cambridge Magistrates Court which was largely refused. I’ve also asked information on how the Cambridge Magistrate’s Court register is held and for the procedure for obtaining a copy and that request was rejected.
Courtel – Crown and County Courts
In relation to Crown and County Court lists the Ministry of Justice has a contact with a company called Courtel, it appears this contract lets the company, but not the ministry of justice or the courts themselves, publish detailed court lists. A number of Freedom of Information requests have been made to seek more details:
- A request for information relating to the contract between the Ministry of Justice and Courtel – Rejected / not treated as a valid FOI request
- Public interest provisions for exclusive arrangements with Bailii and Courtel
To view the kind of very limited information currently made public pro-actively online in relation to Crown Courts: See the Cambridge Crown Court list on the Justice.gov.uk website.
- Wigan & Leigh Magistrates Court – (Wiganworld.co.uk statement saying “Wigan Magistrates Court will not allow local court results to appear on this website.”)
The Removal from WhatDoTheyKnow.com
Ideally it would be possible to remove material from WhatDoTheyKnow without taking down the entire request thread and correspondence. Currently individual messages and attachments cannot be hidden by the administration team (of which I am a volunteer member).
WhatDoTheyKnow is open source, and anyone able to make the improvements is more than welcome to do so and submit them. There is a relevant issue on GitHub. I have personally had other material I would like to campaign on the back of hidden, including a response releasing sets of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Probation Trust’s Board Papers. I’ve also commented on an accidentally released document which has been removed from WhatDoTheyKnow.
My Previous Related Articles
- Cambridge Court Usher Defies Lord Chief Justice on Transparancy – September 2012 – Includes continued lobbying via the Community Safety Partnership.
- Cambridge Community Safety Partnership December 2011 – I used the public speaking slot to urge greater transparency in the courts.
- Cambridge Magistrates – 17 November 2011 – Article following observation of the court where I note I was told there wasn’t a full copy of the court list available.
- Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner – Courts – October 2012 – My views on what our Police and Crime Commissioner ought do in relation to the courts.
- Cambridge Magistrates’ Court – My report on observing Cambridge Magistrate’s Court in April 2008.
- New Cambridge Magistrates’ CourtI visited Cambridge’s new Magistrates’ Court buildings on Thursday the 23rd of October 2008.
- A Day in the Cambridge Magistrates Court – 7th of March 2011
- Watching Cambridge Magistrates Deal With A Car Vs Cycle Incident – 25 July 2011
- Jail for 222 Victoria Road Resident Who Burgled Milton Road Pharmacy – 25 July 2011
- A Morning in Cambridge Magistrates Court – 25 July 2011
- Charges Dropped After Student Fees Protestors Strike Deal With Prosecutors – 17 November 2011