Basic Failure of Open Justice at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court


Monday, August 12th, 2019. 2:35pm

Photo of the exterior of Cambridge Magistrates' Court from https://courttribunalfinder.service.gov.uk/courts/cambridge-magistrates-courtOn Monday the 12th of August 2019 I attended Cambridge Magistrates’ court to observe proceedings, with a view to reporting on them if anything newsworthy took place.

I was not able to obtain information which I understand I was entitled to and which I felt I needed both to decide which cases to observe and to ensure any reports were full and accurate.

The information I was not able to obtain is that generally described as the “full” court list (as opposed to the “noticeboard” list).

My understanding is the full list contains information on defendants such as their ages / dates of birth and addresses – which enable reports to unambiguously identify individuals in question and avoid defaming someone else with the same name. The full list in my experience also includes details of alleged offences, this enables reporting accurately on allegations and making decisions on which cases to observe.

I was able to speak to a court clerk who stated they were not surprised that I had not been provided with a copy of the court list. They suggested that the information requested would only be provided if a decision to release it was made, and that decision would depend on my providing my identity and who I am. I cited the law, Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules and stated my understanding that in the case of, for example, details of “each alleged offence and any plea entered” should be provided to the public on request, and the provision of such information ought not be subject to a decision being taken as to if to release it, or not, in response to a request.

Without easy access to the full court list our courts are not in my view effectively operating in public. The doors being technically open for anyone to walk in don’t provide for public justice if its not possible to find out information on cases which are scheduled, so people can choose which cases they are interested in observing, or find out if, and when, a case they want to observe is due to be heard.

I think we need an effective, public, open, local justice system in order to tackle many of our society’s problems. Deterrence, and justice, is enhanced by the public operation of our courts. Tackling this problem and getting our courts operating openly is in my view key to making our society safer and fairer.

Full Details of What Happened

Over a number of weeks I considered attending my local magistates’ court to observe, and report on, a case which had been mentioned in the local press. I thought carefully about if it was something I was prepared to do, and how I would approach attending and reporting.

I sought to do all I could to ensure my attendance went smoothly.

I decided to take nothing with me other than a folder containing a blank notebook, and paper, a copy of Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules, some cash, my keys, and a packet of tissues. I didn’t want to take journalistic notes in case they were searched, I didn’t want to take electronic devices such as a phone in-case I was accused of breaching a rule by having them, or having them be held by security.

I also decided to wear a suit. I am aware that some people often make decisions based on appearance and it appears to me that the justice system is a part of a society which is disjointed from wider society and perhaps still judges people based on what they look like – something I think wider civilised society is moving away from. I thought the establishment might react more pleasantly to, or be less panicked by the presence of, someone who was dressed like them.

The court building opened at 9am. I was outside at 0910, I thought that would be a good time to go in. Early, promptly, but not right on the dot of the opening time. My expectation at the time was I’d go in, find out when cases I was interested in were scheduled for, and come back out before returning, later to observe them.

I approached the court building, entered and went through the security procedure. I placed my keys and folder in a tray, and walked through an arch. I was asked to stand with my arms up as I was scanned with a probe, presumably a metal detector. I then picked up my items. I was asked for my name by the security staff. I said only that I was a member of the public and they let me though.

I suspect the security staff were asking for people’s names to be helpful and to direct them to the right court but it would be best if they explained the purpose of their question and informed people if they had to answer it.

I climbed the stairs to the courts which are on the third floor of the building. The stairway is narrow and foreboding. I am not claustrophobic but it felt like an enclosed and unsafe place, rather like some staircases at multi-story car parks. There appeared to be only be one way in and out of the labyrinthine complex for the public though green emergency exit signs indicate the presence of other routes which would presumably, hopefully, become accessible to all in an emergency.

On the level containing the court rooms there was a noticeboard, there were A4 lists posted under “Court 1 and Court 3″. These lists contained only a time, the defendants name, an unlabelled column perhaps showing who was prosecuting (generally the police), and a case number.

I found that a case I was interested observing was listed as the second case in court number 3, with three cases all listed for 10am being listed for that court.

Someone approached the list for court one and crossed out a line on the list for court one as I was watching.

At this point it was 0920. There were “court in session” lights on outside courts one and three, but there didn’t appear to be anyone inside.

I decided to wait with a view to asking an usher for a copy of the full court listing.

I noted a sign stating: “Use of mobile phones is prohibited in all hearing rooms. CT1 October 2018″.

I overheard a security officer advise someone else that the ushers would start work in “about a quarter of an hour”, that would be somewhere around 0940. There was a sign on the noticeboard containing the so called “noticeboard lists” that ushers are available from 0930.

I read some of the other signs which included: “Hot drinks may not be brought into the court room or hearing room”, “Food many not be consumed in the court room or hearing room”, “CCTV images are recorded” and “it is an offence to take photographs, record video clips or make unauthorised audio recordings anywayanywhere in the hearing centre … if you are found to be in breach of this the matter will be referred to a judge and may result in legal action”.

The security officer advised another member of the public apparently present to observe that ushers would come into court at 0945 and at that point they could go in, and turn to the right, to go into the public gallery. The security guard [perhaps being asked if cases from over the weekend were being dealt with] also said: “we don’t open on a Saturday so anything that does [need to be dealt with on Saturday] goes to Huntington”.

I sat and waited and finalised my plan to first ask for a copy of the full court list, and then if that wasn’t successful, to seek a copy of “each alleged offence and any plea entered” for each case due before the court I was intending to observe – court 3.

An usher eventually entered the court and came in and out a few times. While the usher was standing outside the court, and I was sitting in the waiting area outside I asked if I could have a copy of the full court list. The initial answer was: ~”No. We don’t print it off. I need to get everyone booked in”. I was then asked who I was, to which I responded just that I was a member of the public.

The usher was wearing a black gown (which is how I recognised them as an usher), they were wearing a badge with no name on it. I asked who they were and I was told merely: “Julie”.

A fellow member of the public who had overheard my request asked if I was seeking a ~”a full list showing what was going on”, I said “yes”, I was.. and they noted “that would be useful”, I said: “we should get it, I might get a copy shortly”.

I waited outside as various people walked in and out of the court, apparently members of the public, defendants, lawyers, court staff etc.

I decided to wait outside until just before the court session was due to start.

The usher returned to me sitting outside and said: “I’ve consulted our head legal advisor”. “It’s all confidential I don’t know if I can…”. “It’s all digital now, we don’t print it out”.

At this point I had only asked for a copy of the full court list.

I now rephrased my request to ask for specific information. I asked if I could have:

“details of each alleged offence and any plea entered, for court three here this morning”.

Apparently reading from their paper copy of the full court list the usher noted the information published on the noticeboard list (the defendant’s names) then very briefly stated:

  1. An Assault
  2. Possession of a controlled drug
  3. Fraud

I asked if I could have any further details of the alleged offences and was told no.

I suspect there was further information to which I was entitled.

I asked for details of the pleas entered and was told “they’re trials, they’re all ‘not guilty’”.

(It would be possible for there to be trials if someone had pleaded not-guilty to some, but not all offences they were alleged to have committed).

I sat down again and waited. I decided to ask to make a request for the full court listing information to the clerk at the start of case 2. I thought case 2 would be of significant local interest and there would be a lot of observers and reporters present, so making it feel safer and more comfortable to make a request where I wasn’t the only “outsider” in in the room.

I entered the court pretty much exactly at 10am. The usher was telling the clerk if witnesses were present or not for the case listed as case 1. A defence solicitor asked the clerk and usher about their views on his fitness regime and the if running around the city with heavy bags and up the stairs was sufficient aerobic exercise. They looked oddly at him and ignored him.

My one fellow member of the public in the public seating asked if I had obtained a copy of the court list. I said: “no”.

I sat and drafted what I wanted to say to the clerk, I planned to ask for information on “each alleged offence and any plea entered”, and to note I had requested the information from the usher but had not received what I expected. I thought if I was making a request I would also request other information to which I was entitled including the identity of the prosecution and defence reps and the identities of the judge/magistrates so planned to ask for that too.

As I sat and waited the prosecutor answered a phone call in the court/hearing room and wasn’t challenged – though he did promptly leave presumably to carry on a conversation elsewhere.

There were around 14 seats in the public gallery (an area at the back of the room, at the same level as the floor of the court). The seats were in two rows, I took the seat nearest the door on the front row. I later found out this was near to, and in-front of, the ushers’ seat.

The magistrates came in a 10:05. A ~”court rise” order was given and I stood up. (Apparently not doing so risks a spell in the cells for contempt!) In this case I was happy to stand to show respect to our system of justice and the office of magistrate. (I have previously been in a court room which had been kept waiting for a very long time for magistrates to return after their lunch break and I certainly felt, and could sense others feeling, less deferential when asking to stand on that occasion).

Case two was called. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, but I had heard discussion about a slight delay in case one so it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

After the case had been called but before it began I asked if I could make a representation to the clerk. The usher sighed but did appear to rely my request to the clerk who appeared to ignore it. I was intending to request the basic court listing information, and other information I was entitled to as I had planned.

I will write a separate report on the substance of the case 2.

Case 2 was rapidly dispatched in under ten minutes, including a few minutes of deliberation, in-court, by the magistrates.

After the case was over I quietly and politely asked the usher for the names of the magistrates.

The usher again sighed, more dramatically this time, and pointed at me (I’ve experienced being pointed at in this way by public officials before, I don’t understand the behaviour, in retrospect in this case it may have been to indicate “I will return to you here with the information you have requested”). The usher didn’t respond verbally in any way to my request straight away but walked off and dealt with other matters. I decided to wait for ten minutes to see if the usher came back with the names.

Proceedings in another case then took place briefly. I won’t say anything more because what can be reported about a case before it reaches trial is strictly limited.

After just a few minutes the magistrates retired and I was left sitting in the court room with just the other member of the public and the clerk, and someone coming in-and out to a desk towards the back – I suspected they were probation service rep.

I decided at that point I would not seek to speak to the clerk directly, but to only go via the usher.

The usher returned and gave me the names of the magistrates orally and very quickly, they were, phonetically:

  • Sarah Vallance-Good
  • Jacob Power
  • Kim Clegg

I repeated them to seek confirmation that the information had been correctly transmitted but the usher walked off and offered no confirmation.

In retrospect when I was home later I wondered if I could have requested a “reasonable adjustment” under the Equalities Act as even though I don’t think I have any particular problem receiving information orally generally the manner in which it was delivered was at the edge of what I was capable of dealing with.

At this point the clerk spoke up. The clerk, was in court, “holding court”, but without magistrates or a judge present. The clerk addressed me and said “Who are you?”. I said: “I am a member of the public observing the court today”. The clerk announced: “I am surprised you got the names of the magistrates if you are not a member of the press”.

I stayed silent for a few moments, in the silent court considering what, if anything to do next.

I asked the clerk if I could speak to him, he said yes. I relayed my attempt to get a copy of the full list that morning and told him what had happened. The clerk stated that he wasn’t surprised that I wasn’t provided with the full list. I explained that I understood I was entitled to the information I had asked for under the criminal procedure rules. The clerk responded: “which rule?”. “5.8” I replied. Consulting a copy of the rules and adding “5.8(6)(b) and (f) for example”. The clerk said he thought a decision would need to be made on if to release information or not, and that decision would depend on who I was. I responded to say that wasn’t my understanding and that I thought the information I requested should be available to anyone on who asked for it. The clerk expressed a view that as the cases were being heard in open court that brought sufficient openness.

I asked the clerk for his name, he said he was Jeremy Moss, and he added “I have done this for a very long time”.

Mr Moss added that I was clearly “doing something” and he noted aloud that I was “writing things down”.

I thanked the clerk and said I would pursue the matter elsewhere.

After a period contemplating if I could do any other useful reporting without the court list I left the courtroom shortly afterwards.

I’ve now written up what happened and I intend to share my experience and seek comments. I then plan to seek to draw what happened to the attention of the CEO of the courts service (who has engaged with me previously on matters of openness in our courts via the @CEOofHMCTS) and to my MP.

I have only ever once before in my life ever raised a formal complaint about anything (that related to the way a Parliamentary committee published evidence I had submitted in a garbled format). I am though considering that if others agree with my interpretation of the criminal procedure rules and that I should have been given access to the information I requested I may make a complaint in this case, or at least in some way pursue a response.

I really think open justice is critical for a fair society and I think it has a role in preventing crime and making our society safer. I think action on this point could save lives and prevent huge amounts of upset and distress.

I have been intending for some time to make a Freedom of Information request asking for information on the arrangements in-place for distributing copies of the full court lists for hearings at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court. I would have preferred if I had been able to do this in advance of attending to observe a case but a case I was interested in came up. I may make such a request an link to it in the comments.

Police, Crime [Fire] and Justice Commissioners

I would like to see Police and Crime Commissioners become Police, Crime, and Justice Commissioners and take an interest in wider criminal justice strategy. I am aware there is a good argument against this based on concern about maintaining independence of the judicial and policing systems but I don’t think that would be put at risk by having a local elected representative representing the public to the judiciary and the courts service. Just as with their policing role I wouldn’t expect commissioners to get involved in operational matters or individual cases but they could take local decisions as they do in policing on on strategic policy matters, communications and estates.
(I don’t actually support Police and Crime Commissioners, I’d rather their role be taken-on by a committee of councillors. Such a committee could take a broad view of the criminal justice system.)

See Also

46 comments/updates on “Basic Failure of Open Justice at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court

  1. John Brace

    I too have had problems getting the listings from my local Magistrates Court (Wirral).

    I went to the offices and asked the staff – manager had told that this information wouldn’t be released. I was told I would only get it if I came in for an appointment to be vetted as a journalist.

    But here is a link to the guide for HMCTS staff on the media and courts register and lists.

    In summary though it had to be provided free of charge, made available to the media on request and contain the defendant’s name, age, alleged offence and address.

    There’s more about sharing with local newspapers here, but it does state in that “take steps to satisfy themselves that they are providing information to a genuine journalist or agent. (Paper copies must be collected in person by a representative from the newspaper who must produce ID such as a UK Press Card Authority or a letter from the editor authorising collection”

    So in other words if you don’t have a press card you need a letter from your editor.

    I hope the above is helpful and yes HMCTS staff do go a bit overboard sometimes with the information.

    On the plus side – the Crown Court listings are available through Courtserve which saves all this bother!

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    It appears that the magistrates and prosecutors names may have been provided to another reporter in court

    https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/raymond-brown-cambridge-news-court-16741739

    It may be that the reporter made a request by email and got a better response than I did with an oral request to the usher. The usher didn’t suggest I make a request by email.

    If I do make a complaint I will suggest how others’ requests for the same, or similar, information was dealt with.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have recalled that when the usher returned to me as I was sitting outside the court and told me

    “I’ve consulted our head legal advisor”. “It’s all confidential I don’t know if I can…”. “It’s all digital now, we don’t print it out”.

    there was another usher standing nearby.

    I didn’t realise that might be relevant, they appeared to perhaps be waiting to talk to the usher. In retrospect it struck me a couple of days later that this second usher might have been dispatched to observe the interaction.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have carefully considered if I should pursue what happened via a complaint.

    A number of people, including some with relevant expertise, have now read my account and none have told me my interpretation is wrong – and people are generally quick to speak up if something is wrong.

    Access to court listing information is fundamental to openness in our court system, and openness in our court system is a vital pillar of our justice system and indeed our society. This is a very important subject.

    I have drafted the following complaint for comment:

    I’m writing to complain about the responses I received when requesting information I believe I was entitled to under Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court on the 12th of August 2019.

    At around 0940, shortly after ushers had come on duty prior to a 10am court start time, I asked an usher outside court 3 for a copy of the full court list.

    The initial response from the usher to that request was:

    “No. We don’t print it off. I need to get everyone booked in.”

    a few minutes later the usher returned to me outside the court and said:

    “I’ve consulted our head legal advisor”. “It’s all confidential I don’t know if I can…”. “It’s all digital now, we don’t print it out”.

    The usher in question was the usher working in court 3 that morning and they identified themselves as “Julie”.

    I then rephrased my request and asked the usher for:

    “details of each alleged offence and any plea entered, for court three here this morning”.

    apparently reading from their paper copy of the full court list the usher noted the information published on the noticeboard list and very briefly stated:

    1. An Assault
    2. Possession of a controlled drug
    3. Fraud

    I asked if I could have any further details of the alleged offences and was told no.

    I believe I was entitled, under the The Criminal Procedure Rules 2015, rule 5.8 (6) (b) to more than merely, in one case, a one word description of “each alleged offence”. I expected the information which I understand is on the full court list including, for example, the name and address of the defendant, the date of the alleged offence, the circumstances of the allegation and the law the behaviour was allegedly contrary to.

    I asked for details of the pleas entered and was told “they’re trials, they’re all ‘not guilty’”.

    Given the possibility a trial in the event of a defendant pleading not-guilty to some, but not all, allegations I did not feel this was an adequate response.

    At 10:05 after a defendant had been led into court, but before proceedings began, I asked the usher if I could make an application. This usher appeared to relay my request to the clerk, and my request appeared to be ignored by the clerk.

    I could have wished to make an application on any number of matters which should have been dealt with there and then. As it happens my intent was to ask the clerk for information relating to the case which I understood I was entitled to under The Criminal Procedure Rules 2015, rule 5.8, during which I would have noted the fact my request to the clerk had not been as fruitful as I would have hoped, to explain the manner in which I was making my request.

    After the case had been dealt with, while the court was adjourned, I asked the usher for the names of the magistrates, as I was entitled to receive under The Criminal Procedure Rules 2015, rule 5.8(6)(f)(iv). The usher sighed dramatically, pointed at me, and walked off without verbally acknowledging my request. The usher approached me a few minutes later and and gave me the names of the magistrates orally and very quickly. I repeated them to seek confirmation that the information had been correctly transmitted but the usher walked off and offered no confirmation.

    I feel the names of the magistrates would have been better provided in writing, or time should have been taken to enable me to confirm the names, including their spelling, I should not have merely been given the information orally, once, in a brusque manner.

    At this point the clerk spoke up. The clerk addressed me and said “Who are you?”. I said: “I am a member of the public observing the court today”. The clerk announced: “I am surprised you got the names of the magistrates if you are not a member of the press”.

    I am disappointed in this statement given my understanding that the names magistrates who have made a decision at a hearing in public should be given, on request, to anyone who asks for them.

    I asked the clerk if I could speak to him, he said yes. I relayed my attempt to get a copy of the full list that morning and told him what had happened. The clerk stated that he wasn’t surprised that I wasn’t provided with the full list. I explained that I understood I was entitled to the information I had asked for under the criminal procedure rules. The clerk responded: “which rule?”. “5.8” I replied. Consulting a copy of the rules I added “5.8(6)(b) and (f) for example”. The clerk said he thought a decision would need to be made on if to release information or not, and that decision would depend on who I was. I responded to say that wasn’t my understanding and that I thought the information I requested should be available to anyone on who asked for it. The clerk expressed a view that as the cases were being heard in open court that brought sufficient openness.

    I am concerned the clerk’s statements could mislead ushers and other court staff as to what is expected of them under the law.

    I asked the clerk for his name, he said he was Jeremy Moss, and he added “I have done this for a very long time”.

    Mr Moss added that I was clearly “doing something” and he noted aloud that I was “writing things down”.

    I do not think court staff should imply any criticism of those who write things down in a court room, or in a court building.

    I thanked the clerk and said I would pursue the matter elsewhere, which is what I am now doing via this complaint.

    I have raised this complaint as appropriate transparency in the justice system is in my view fundamental to the proper operation of the court system.

    I would like this complaint to result in consideration, in particular, of:

    1. If my requests for information were appropriately handled.
    2. If my request to make an application in the court room was appropriately handled.
    3. If the attitude and approach of the usher was appropriate.
    4. How any requests by others for some of the same information as I was seeking on the day were handled and if, and why, my requests were dealt with differently from others’.

    The outcomes from my complaint which I would like to see include:

    1. Apologies and explanations from the courts service, and the individual members of staff involved.
    2. The provision to me of the information I was seeking.
    3. Details of steps taken to seek to ensure similar occurrences do not happen again either in Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, or elsewhere within the UK court and tribunal system.
    4. Advice to me, and others, on how to obtain information we are entitled to from the courts in the most efficient, effective manner, causing least upset and disruption for all involved.
    5. For relevant staff, magistrates, and judges to be made aware of this complaint and its resolution.

  5. Magistrates’ Blog

    Thank you for giving such a complete account of your recent visit to Cambridge Magistrates’ Court.

    It has always been a bit of a bugbear of mine how some interested members of the public are viewed with suspicion by a minority of court staff. We should be encouraging members of the public to visit our courts and take a keener interest in the provision of local justice.

    It is perfectly acceptable for anyone to sit at the back of open court and take a note of proceedings. They should only be challenged if it is obvious they are up to no good – for example, taking notes to help witnesses about to give evidence at trial. I always think it is safer for any member of the public who wishes to take notes to mention it to the usher, so there is no possibility of confusion or embarrassment later on. Of course any reporting restriction must be strictly adhered to.

    The HMCTS legal staff will obviously know and understand the rules about providing full court lists to members of the public. Bona fide journalists are entitled to view these in advance of the relevant hearing, which allows them to cherry pick cases of particular interest.

    Providing the full lists to members of the public could be problematic because they do sometimes contain sensitive information – e.g. the names of victims in domestic/sexual assault cases.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    >The HMCTS legal staff will obviously know and understand the rules about providing full court lists to members of the public. Bona fide journalists are entitled to view these in advance of the relevant hearing, which allows them to cherry pick cases of particular interest.

    My understanding is it is only in respect of access to family courts that our courts system seeks to regulate which journalists can effectively report on proceedings. The law on access to information about upcoming cases enables anyone to access information about upcoming cases. The state should not operate a system where only its selected and favoured journalists can report effectively on what happens in court.

    >Providing the full lists to members of the public could be problematic because they do sometimes contain sensitive information – e.g. the names of victims in domestic/sexual assault cases.
    That information is available to those who are observing in court and there are laws preventing its publication. Court lists should be provided to people with notes on any reporting restrictions – either general reporting restrictions which apply – or those which have been ordered in relation to a specific case. It is up to individuals what they do with the information received and they can be held to account if they there is an allegation they have breached the law with subsequent actions.

    I would like to see court lists, appropriately redacted for publication, made available to all online.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    >The HMCTS legal staff will obviously know and understand the rules about providing full court lists
    I don’t share that confidence, and I think my experience shows that at least in Cambridge Magistrates’ Court staff are not aware of the public’s rights to information.

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have received a number of comments on my proposed complaint.

    One criticism is that it is not concise and specific. This is a fair and reasonable point and I have considered complaining only about the most concerning particular element, for example that when I requested details of the alleged offence for case 3 in court 3 that morning the response I got was the one word “fraud” when I expected to be provided with the full details of the alleged offence as I would have expected them to appear on the full court list.

    I have decided not to limit my complaint in this way for a number of reasons. One is that I may be accused of omitting relevant context from my complaint, so I think it is best to present the entirety of what happened, another is I was seriously concerned about the attitude of the usher and the clerk’s comments so I think it is reasonable to include those in my complaint too.

    Another question raised is if this experience is the best one to raise a complaint in relation to, and if I should, for example, make a request in writing for a court listing information for a particular day and complain if it is refused. I have made such a request previously, and it was rejected. In that case I complained to the Information Commissioner on the grounds the material should have been released under the Freedom of Information Act. I think the ruling was wrong but was not prepared to expose myself to the risks of a costs award against me by appealing it to a tribunal.

    In this case I have clear notes of what happened, and I was able to raise my concerns with a clerk so I think this is a case where I did everything I could to do the right thing, and I have good notes supporting my experience so I think it is a good case to base a complaint on.

    Lastly I have considered if to add a line to my complaint asking when we can expect Cambridge Magistrates Court, and our courts more generally to openly publish informative but appropriately redacted court lists and registers online so we can have a truly open and transparent justice system. I think this would be a relevant opportunity to seek an update on progress towards this.

    I am intending separately to make a Freedom of Information request to find out about the current arrangements for proactively releasing court listing and court register information relating to cases at Cambridge Magistrate’s court, including a list of bodies to which information is routinely sent and the selection criteria, if any, used to determine which case information they are sent. I am currently considering dealing with the complaint first, and then pursuing the FOI route for more information on current policy and practice that way.

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    The courts service’s online complaints system asks: “How were you affected?”.

    I took some text from my original article to write: “I was not able to obtain information which I understand I was entitled to and which I felt I needed both to decide which cases to observe and to ensure any reports were full and accurate.

    My understanding is the full list, which I requested but was not provided with, contains information on defendants such as their ages / dates of birth and addresses – which enable reports to unambiguously identify individuals in question and avoid defaming someone else with the same name. The full list in my experience also includes details of alleged offences which enables both reporting accurately on allegations and making decisions on which cases to observe.”

    I have also added the request for an update on progress towards proactive online publication of court lists and registers.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I decide not to use the “resolver” service as it insisted on an physical address, which appears unnecessary.

      I have submitted my complaint by email using the contact address provided on the Cambridge Magistrates’ Court page on the Government’s Court and tribunal finder website. I gave my email the subject line: “Complaint – Failure to Provide Information at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court”

      I received an immediate autoresponse stating:

      This is an automatically generated email acknowledging receipt of your email to cb-enquiries email box. We cover Peterborough, Cambridge & Huntingdon Magistrates Courts. This inbox is monitored Monday to Friday between 8:30-5pm (except Bank Holidays). To help us deal with your enquiry please do not duplicate your correspondence by post or DX (we no longer receive fax enquiries) as this will cause further delays and wasted time in dealing with your enquiry. We aim to deal with your enquiry within 5 working days. Thank you Cambridgeshire Magistrates Courts
      This e-mail and any attachments is intended only for the attention of the addressee(s). Its unauthorised use, disclosure, storage or copying is not permitted. If you are not the intended recipient, please destroy all copies and inform the sender by return e-mail. Internet e-mail is not a secure medium. Any reply to this message could be intercepted and read by someone else. Please bear that in mind when deciding whether to send material in response to this message by e-mail. This e-mail (whether you are the sender or the recipient) may be monitored, recorded and retained by the Ministry of Justice. Monitoring / blocking software may be used, and e-mail content may be read at any time. You have a responsibility to ensure laws are not broken when composing or forwarding e-mails and their contents.

  10. Richard Taylor Article author

    On Monday the 19th of August 2019 I received an acknowledgement:

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Thank you for your email dated the 17th of August 2019 in which you have raised a number of issues relating to the 12th of August at Cambridge Magistrates. I will consider what you have raised and respond fully within 10 days.

    Yours Faithfully

    [Image of signature]

    Stephen Reyes

    Legal Team Manager

    South Cambridgeshire Legal Team| HMCTS| Cambridge Magistrates’ Court| 12 St Andrews Street| Cambridge| CB2 3AX

  11. Richard Taylor Article author

    On the 21st of August 2019 I received a response:

    Dear Sir

    Re: Complaint – Failure to Provide Information at Cambridge Magistrates' Court

    I am sorry that you were unable to receive the full information you were seeking and that you were disappointed in the manner of the usher and legal adviser.

    Discussion with the Usher:
    I apologise for the fact that the manner was brusque. This was not intentional but I understand that the discussion took place around 9.30 am when she was attempting deal with a number of issues and court users to ensure that court started on time. I understand that the usher ascertained and provided the full names of the magistrates, gave brief details of the allegations and indicated that as a trials court the pleas at that point were not guilty. There is no requirement for this information to be provided in writing, the rules refer to oral provision, and I am content that the usher tried her best to assist you in providing the information that was available to her at the time.

    Provision of the full court list
    You refer to CPR 2015 rule 5.8 which covers information that should be provided about a case and the rules set out the limited information that must be supplied on an oral application to a court officer. There is no requirement that a response should be immediate and the information within the rules was supplied. A full court list may contain information that should not be released due to reporting restrictions, there is no provision for a redacted list to be provided.

    Discussion with the Legal Adviser
    The legal adviser would correctly identify the person they were talking to at the beginning of any discussion to ensure they did not become involved in an inappropriate conversation, for example, with a witness. He has been reminded, as have all legal advisers of the obligation to provide the information as set out in the CPR 2015 thus ensuring that information can be provided quickly. I understand you had obtained the names of the magistrates and the legal adviser provided his name on request.

    The team members here at Cambridge are aware of your complaint and as mentioned all team members in Cambridgeshire have been given a reminder.

    I am unable to comment on policy and thus am unable to state when Cambridge or other courts will “openly publish informative but appropriately redacted court lists and registers online”. This much broader issue falls within the remit of the Ministry of Justice.

    I hope you feel I have dealt with the points raised in your email of the 17th of August in an open and frank manner but if you are unhappy with my response please write to Debbie Pinion, Deputy Clerk to the Justices: debbie.pinion1 [at] Justice.gov.uk.

    Yours faithfully
    [Image of signature]
    Stephen Reyes
    Legal Team Manager
    South Cambridgeshire Legal Team| HMCTS| Cambridge Magistrates' Court| 12 St Andrews Street| Cambridge| CB2 3AX

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      The response was polite which is excellent.

      However I have still not received the information I was seeking and many of the issues I raised have not been addressed.

      Stephen Reyes has stated that “the information within the rules was supplied” that I think is the key point to pursue further. I do not think that a one word response “fraud” complies with the requirement to provide “details of each alleged offence”, no basis for the conclusion that it was a sufficient response has been given.

      It appears the practice in Cambridge Magistrate’s court, as confirmed by the response to my complaint, is at odds with the courts service’s guidance which states:

      Reporters attending a criminal trial may ask for copies of the charge sheet or indictment and the practice directions state that this should be released as “The alleged offence(s) will have been read aloud in court, and their terms must be supplied under Criminal Procedure Rules 5.8(4).”

      (The provision in the Criminal Procedure Rules 5.8(4) applies to the public and my interpretation of the guidance is that the information on the charge sheet or indictment (which I suspect is the same information about the offence as on the “full list”) is what should be provided under the Criminal Procedure Rules.

      I want to focus on compliance with the law, not compliance with the court’s service’s own guidance though.

      The statement:
      >A full court list may contain information that should not be released due to reporting restrictions,

      is worrying as it suggests Cambridge Magistrates’ Court will not release the full court list at all. The response to my complaint has not considered if further information from the complete court list was provided to others.

      The courts service guidance states:

      It may also be sensible to point out that there may be reporting restrictions in place, or that the complainant may have the benefit of lifetime anonymity due to the nature of the offence. It is, however, the responsibility of the publisher to find out what reporting restrictions exist prior to publication

      Information should be provided and advice given but it is not up to court staff to seek to enforce reporting restrictions.

      The way my request to make an application to the court/clerk was handled was not addressed. Even if clerks have been reminded of the law.

      The advice I sought in terms of making requests for information in the future has not been provided.

      According to the courts service’s complaints procedure those unhappy with the initial response can ask for a review.

  12. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have submitted a request for a review:

    Debbie Pinion,

    I am writing to request a review of the initial response to my complaint regarding the response to my request for information at Cambridge Magistrate’s court on the 12th of August 2019.

    I am including my complaint and the initial response along with this message.

    The initial response stated “information within the rules was supplied” however in respect of one case I received just one word when I requested “each alleged offence”.

    Courts service guidance states:

    “Reporters attending a criminal trial may ask for copies of the charge sheet or indictment and the practice directions state that this should be released as “The alleged offence(s) will have been read aloud in court, and their terms must be supplied under Criminal Procedure Rules 5.8(4).”

    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/799340/HMCTS_media_guidance_-_Criminal_Court_Guide.pdf

    While this guidance is specific to “reporters” the requirement to provide information under rule Criminal Procedure Rules 5.8 relates to requests from any member of the public.

    The guidance suggests to me that the information on alleged offences provided should be in the detail present on the charge sheet or indictment or indeed on the full court list.

    While I would like the review to encompass all matters raised in my complaint I think the degree of detail in which information provided is the primary issue.

    I am concerned with the attitude of the court staff towards transparency and the principle of open justice.

    I consider it to be a societal norm to ensure that information provided orally has been received, for example by allowing the recipient to read information back, and to obtain confirmation the information has been transferred accurately, and to check the spelling of, for example, names.

    I would like the review to consider if the under rule Criminal Procedure Rules 5.8 the courts service considers that providing magistrates’ names phonetically is sufficient and appropriate.

    The initial response to my complaint included the statement:

    “A full court list may contain information that should not be released due to reporting restrictions”

    I find this worrying as it suggests Cambridge Magistrates’ Court will not release the full court list at all. The response to my complaint has not considered if further information from the complete court list was provided to others. My understanding is information should be provided and advice given but it is not up to court staff to seek to enforce reporting restrictions.

    I have still not received all the information I was seeking, and I would still like to receive it.

    The way my request to make an application to the court/clerk was handled has not been addressed.

    The advice I sought in terms of making requests for information, and applications to the court/clerk, in the future has not been provided.
    I would like all those who have been made aware of my complaint and its initial response to be made aware of the outcome of your review.

    Regards,

    Richard Taylor

  13. Richard Taylor Article author

    On Thursday the 12th of September I received a response, the covering email of which stated:

    Dear Mr Taylor,

    Please find attached, I apologise for the delay in the response due to leave.

    Regards

    Debbie Pinion

    Deputy Justices’ Clerk, Cambridgeshire

    And the attached response, which was marked “CONFIDENTIAL” stated:

    Dear Mr Taylor,
    I am sorry that you did not receive the information in the detail you required but I am satisfied
    that both the applications to the usher and the legal adviser were dealt with in accordance with
    the Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 and supplied sufficient information.

    How applications can be made in future
    Rule 5.8 (2) states how applications should be made

    (2) A person who wants information about a case from the court officer must—
    (a)apply to the court officer;
    (b)specify the information requested; and
    (c)pay any fee prescribed.
    (3) The application—
    (a)may be made orally, giving no reasons, if paragraph (4) requires the court officer to supply the information
    requested;
    (b)must be in writing, unless the court otherwise permits, and must explain for what purpose the information is
    required, in any other case.

    Any future applications may be made in accordance with the above. Officers of the court will
    accommodate oral applications on the day although I acknowledge that their priority will be
    ensuring that courts are running.

    How information should be supplied

    Rule 5.8
    (5) The court officer must supply that information—
    (a)by word of mouth; or
    (b)by such other arrangements as the Lord Chancellor directs

    The usher and legal adviser correctly supplied the information available to them orally, there
    being no other such arrangements directed by the Lord Chancellor. I accept that a court officer
    would be expected to clarify the spelling of any complicated/unusual or ambiguous name.
    What information should be supplied

    Rule 5.8
    (6) The information that paragraph (4) requires the court officer to supply is—
    (a)the date of any hearing in public, unless any party has yet to be notified of that date;
    (b)each alleged offence and any plea entered;
    (c)the court’s decision at any hearing in public, including any decision about—
    (i)bail, or
    (ii)the committal, sending or transfer of the case to another court;
    (d)whether the case is under appeal;
    (e)the outcome of any trial and any appeal; and
    (f)the identity of—
    (i)the prosecutor,
    (ii)the defendant,
    (iii)the parties’ representatives, including their addresses, and
    (iv)the judge, magistrate or magistrates, or justices’ legal adviser by whom a decision at a hearing in public was
    made.

    The usher and legal adviser provided the information within the above rules there is no further
    guidance or direction as to any further detail that must be supplied to a member if the public.
    A description of the alleged offence may be encompassed in one word, if there is more than
    one offence of the same type the number should be clarified and if more than one type of
    offence each type of offence should be clarified.
    The guidance you refer to
    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/799340/HMCTS_media_guidance_-_Criminal_Court_Guide.pdf
    specifically relates to the media.
    I do not accept that under the present rules an officer of the court is required to supply to a
    member of the public full details from a charge sheet or full court list.

    I am not aware of any other oral applications for information being made to the court on the
    day.
    I am satisfied that the usher and legal adviser provided sufficient detailed information within the
    terms of the Criminal Procedural Rules 2015 and that all team members are aware of their
    obligations. Court officers will always deal with such applications whilst continuing with their
    other duties on the day, if their approach was hurried on this day then I apologise, but I am
    confident that all my court officers support transparency and the principle of open justice.

    If you do not consider that I have reviewed your complaint satisfactorily, you can appeal by
    writing to The Customer Investigations Team at the below address. Please explain why you are
    dissatisfied with the responses you have already received. The Customer Investigations Team
    will consider your complaint and aims to respond within 15 working days.
    HM Courts & Tribunals Service Customer Investigations Team, 6th Floor (6.02), 102 Petty
    France, London SW1H 9AJ

    Yours faithfully

    Debbie Pinion
    Deputy Justices’ Clerk, Cambridgeshire

    I thought the “confidential” marking was inappropriate, it’s presence has made the decision to publish the response much harder than it otherwise would have been as I have to consider if publication amounts to a breach of confidence, and consider the risks associated with breaching a confidence.

    I can’t see anything in the response which has the required character of confidence, I can’t see any unwarranted harm which could arise as a result of publication.

  14. Richard Taylor Article author

    I will now comment, in line, on the response:

    Dear Mr Taylor,
    I am sorry that you did not receive the information in the detail you required but I am satisfied
    that both the applications to the usher and the legal adviser were dealt with in accordance with
    the Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 and supplied sufficient information.

    I’m not sure why the officer is saying sorry if the decision is the court officers did the right thing.

    How applications can be made in future
    Rule 5.8 (2) states how applications should be made

    (2) A person who wants information about a case from the court officer must—
    (a)apply to the court officer;
    (b)specify the information requested; and
    (c)pay any fee prescribed.
    (3) The application—
    (a)may be made orally, giving no reasons, if paragraph (4) requires the court officer to supply the information
    requested;
    (b)must be in writing, unless the court otherwise permits, and must explain for what purpose the information is
    required, in any other case.

    Any future applications may be made in accordance with the above. Officers of the court will
    accommodate oral applications on the day although I acknowledge that their priority will be
    ensuring that courts are running.

    This statement doesn’t add anything, it merely sets out the legal position. It does not express a view on if the requests which I am complaining about were made “in accordance with the above”, my view is they clearly were.

    How information should be supplied

    Rule 5.8
    (5) The court officer must supply that information—
    (a)by word of mouth; or
    (b)by such other arrangements as the Lord Chancellor directs

    The usher and legal adviser correctly supplied the information available to them orally, there
    being no other such arrangements directed by the Lord Chancellor. I accept that a court officer
    would be expected to clarify the spelling of any complicated/unusual or ambiguous name.

    It’s excellent that the principle that ” a court officer would be expected to clarify the spelling of any complicated/unusual or ambiguous name” has been agreed; it appears this element of my complaint has been upheld but there is nothing which gives me confidence procedures have changed and I would experience anything different in the future. There is no statement that the usher was wrong not to assist in ensuring a successful oral transmission of the information.

    What information should be supplied

    Rule 5.8
    (6) The information that paragraph (4) requires the court officer to supply is—
    (a)the date of any hearing in public, unless any party has yet to be notified of that date;
    (b)each alleged offence and any plea entered;
    (c)the court’s decision at any hearing in public, including any decision about—
    (i)bail, or
    (ii)the committal, sending or transfer of the case to another court;
    (d)whether the case is under appeal;
    (e)the outcome of any trial and any appeal; and
    (f)the identity of—
    (i)the prosecutor,
    (ii)the defendant,
    (iii)the parties’ representatives, including their addresses, and
    (iv)the judge, magistrate or magistrates, or justices’ legal adviser by whom a decision at a hearing in public was
    made.

    The usher and legal adviser provided the information within the above rules there is no further
    guidance or direction as to any further detail that must be supplied to a member if the public.
    A description of the alleged offence may be encompassed in one word, if there is more than
    one offence of the same type the number should be clarified and if more than one type of
    offence each type of offence should be clarified.

    This is the key element of the response. The response is couched in abstract terms whereas the complaint related to three specific listings. I expected the response to consider if the information I had been provided in relation to the specific cases in question was appropriate.

    The guidance you refer to
    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/799340/HMCTS_media_guidance_-_Criminal_Court_Guide.pdf
    specifically relates to the media.

    I think this is a disingenuous comment as I made clear in my complaint that I was aware I was citing guidance relating to “reporters”. I wrote: “While this guidance is specific to “reporters” the requirement to provide information under rule Criminal Procedure Rules 5.8 relates to requests from any member of the public”.

    I do not accept that under the present rules an officer of the court is required to supply to a
    member of the public full details from a charge sheet or full court list.

    That is a very clear statement on which I can base further campaigning. If the public can’t have access to the full court list then we don’t have open justice in Cambridge magistrate’s court.

    I am not aware of any other oral applications for information being made to the court on the
    day.

    I did not restrict my suggestion that in response to my complaint, “How any requests by others for some of the same information as I was seeking on the day were handled and if, and why, my requests were dealt with differently from others’” be considered.

    I am satisfied that the usher and legal adviser provided sufficient detailed information within the
    terms of the Criminal Procedural Rules 2015 and that all team members are aware of their
    obligations. Court officers will always deal with such applications whilst continuing with their
    other duties on the day, if their approach was hurried on this day then I apologise, but I am
    confident that all my court officers support transparency and the principle of open justice.

    If you do not consider that I have reviewed your complaint satisfactorily, you can appeal by
    writing to The Customer Investigations Team at the below address. Please explain why you are
    dissatisfied with the responses you have already received. The Customer Investigations Team
    will consider your complaint and aims to respond within 15 working days.
    HM Courts & Tribunals Service Customer Investigations Team, 6th Floor (6.02), 102 Petty
    France, London SW1H 9AJ

    I will appeal, to-date my concerns have only been raised within Cambridgeshire. There may well be a local issue which will only be addressed following a review by someone external to the local court staff. It is notable that despite my complaint having been made, and pursued, by e-mail only a postal address is given for the next stage review. I have found the customerinvestigations -at- hmcts.gsi.gov.uk address online on non-government sites, I suspect that may now be customerinvestigations -at- hmcts.gov.uk and I’ve asked WhatDoTheyKnow to reveal the address released in response to a FOI response.

    Yours faithfully

    Debbie Pinion
    Deputy Justices’ Clerk, Cambridgeshire

  15. Richard Taylor Article author

    It may of course be that the law on access to information from the courts isn’t strong enough and needs to be strengthened if that is the case I hope the way my request for information was dealt with will provide evidence to MPs that we need a stronger law to protect the basic principle of open justice.

  16. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have drafted a request for a further review:

    Customer Investigations Team, Courts and Tribunals Service,

    I am writing to ask that my complaint about the response I received when requesting information I believe I was entitled to under Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court on the 12th of August 2019 be looked at again, following its consideration by the local “Legal Team Manager, South Cambridgeshire Legal Team” and subsequently the/a “Deputy Justices’ Clerk, Cambridgeshire”.

    I believe this is an important case where the stance taken by the Courts and Tribunal Service impacts if we effectively have open justice or not. I was not able to obtain basic court listing information from my local court, without such information being easily available the courts are not in my view operating openly.

    The key point is that when I requested first the full court list, and later details of each alleged offence, in respect of the three cases listed for a specified court session the response I received was:

    “1. An Assault; 2. Possession of a controlled drug; 3. Fraud”

    I believe I was entitled, under the The Criminal Procedure Rules 2015, rule 5.8 (6) to more than merely, in one case, a one word description of “each alleged offence”. I expected the information which I understand is on the full court list including, for example, the name and address of the defendant, the date of the alleged offence, the circumstances of the allegation and the law the behaviour was allegedly contrary to.

    The Deputy Justices’ Clerk, Cambridgeshire who reviewed my complaint responded only in an abstract manner to say: “A description of the alleged offence may be encompassed in one word” without apparently considering if that was appropriate in this specific case. I would like the review to consider the information on the full court list in this instance and what information I should have been provided with.

    I was not able to obtain information which I understand I was entitled to and which I felt I needed both to decide which cases to observe and to ensure any reports were full and accurate.

    I would expect a review of a complaint at this level to go beyond considering if internal guidance was followed, and to consider what the position of the Courts and Tribunal Service should be to the provision of full court listing information given the both the law and the public interest in the principle of open justice.

    The outcomes I would like to see from my complaint are as set out in my initial complaint. I will not repeat the full details of my complaint here but will enclose the correspondence to-date related to the complaint.

    Many thanks,

    Richard Taylor

  17. Richard Taylor Article author

    I submitted the complaint essentially as drafted above to .

    On the 25th of September I followed this up writing:

    Could receipt of my correspondence dates Sun, 22 Sep 2019 at 22:53, copied below, please be acknowledged?

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      My correspondence was promptly acknowledged once I requested an acknowledgment:

      Dear Mr Taylor,

      I confirm receipt of your emails. We’ll investigate your concerns at the final stage of HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s complaints procedure.

      Yours sincerely

      S Wilton

      Customer Investigations Officer | Customer Investigations Team
      HM Courts & Tribunals Service Customer Directorate

  18. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have received a final response to my complaint from the Courts and Tribunal Service.

    Their central Customer Investigations Team responded to merely state:

    I’m satisfied with the explanations already given by the legal team manager and the deputy justices’ clerk and there’s nothing else I can add.

    There is no sign of the careful and detailed consideration and reasoned conclusion which I had hoped for.

    I think this is a vitally important matter so I will write to my MP and ask them to refer the complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

    I will post a full copy of the response from the Courts and Tribunal Service below and keep this thread up to date with progress.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      The Courts and Tribunal Service’s final response stated:

      9 October 2019
      Complaint ref: 973250

      Dear Mr Taylor

      Our final reply to your complaint
      Thank you for your email of 22 September about Cambridge Magistrates’ Court. I’m sorry to hear you’re unhappy with the way we’ve handled your complaint so far. I can see you’re concerned that we didn’t provide you with a copy of the full court list detailing each offence, which would have helped you decide which cases to observe.
      I know this is important to you so I’ve checked all the details carefully and based on the information we have, I’m satisfied with the explanations already given by the legal team manager and the deputy justices’ clerk and there’s nothing else I can add.

      Customer Investigations Team contact details
      I’m sorry that you weren’t given the email address for the Customer Investigations Team. I can see that it would have been helpful, particularly as you’d submitted your complaint by email and we’d replied by email. I will raise this with the court.

      Online court lists
      I’ve noted your suggestion about publishing redacted court lists online. I’m not aware of any plans to do this.

      If you’re still unhappy with our response
      This letter is our final reply to you in line with our complaints procedure, we won’t be writing to you about this again.
      If you’re unhappy with how I’ve handled your complaint, you can ask a member of parliament (MP) to pass your case to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (the Ombudsman). The Ombudsman can only look at complaints about UK government departments and agencies when an MP refers them.

      How to pass your complaint to the Ombudsman

      1. Go to http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/making-complaint.
      2. Check the information to see if they can help you – the Ombudsman cannot review
      all types of complaint.
      3. Download a complaint form from the Ombudsman’s website.
      4. Go to findyourmp.parliament.uk to find your local MP’s details.
      5. Fill in the Ombudsman’s form and send it to your MP.
      Your MP will then pass the complaint to the Ombudsman and get the process started.

      Yours sincerely
      Richard Redgrave
      Head of Customer Investigations

  19. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have written to my MP:

    Daniel Zeichner MP,

    I am writing to ask you to refer a complaint I have made to The Court and Tribunals Service to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

    I am enclosing a copy of my complaint, and the responses I have received to-date, along with a copy of the ombudsman’s complaint form on which I have completed relevant sections.

    I requested the full court list at Court 3 of Cambridge Magistrates’ court on the 12th of August 2019. My request was refused. Without access to full court lists we do not have anything like open justice. The doors of the courts may nominally be open, but that’s not much use if you can’t find out, in detail, what’s scheduled to take place inside.

    I find it astonishing that to-date The Court and Tribunals Service have stood-by their refusal to provide the information when I have asked them to reconsider. This shows there is a systemic, institutional, problem.

    I think the Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules (“Supply to the public, including reporters, of information about cases”) is reasonably strong, but it needs to be followed by Court and Tribunals Service in order to have the intended effect.

    While I hope that pursuing this complaint will result in a step towards open justice, strengthening the justice system, leading to a fairer, safer, society, the way my request, and subsequent complaint, have been responded to lead me to consider if the principle of open justice should be placed in legislation, a good way to do this might be by adding a section on open justice to the definition of “the overriding objective” within both the criminal and civil procedure rules.

    Open justice is a widely used phrase, and it is often, wrongly, assumed that we have open justice in the UK. Lady Hale, when Deputy President of the Supreme Court, stated:

    “The principle of open justice is one of the most precious in our law. It is there to reassure the public and the parties that our courts are indeed doing justice according to law. In fact, there are two aspects to this principle. The first is that justice should be done in open court, so that the people interested in the case, the wider public and the media can know what is going on. The court should not hear and take into account evidence and arguments that they have not heard or seen. The second is that the names of the people whose cases are being decided, and others involved in the hearing, should be public knowledge.”
    https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2014-0210-judgment.pdf

    My experience in Cambridge Magistrates Court on the 12th of August 2019 illustrated how we are far from having that ideal of open justice operating in Cambridge today. The way my complaint has been responded to has shown the Courts and Tribunals Service do not give significant weight to the importance of open justice.
    I would be happy to see you use the routes available to you to pursue this matter, for example questions in Parliament or drawing members of the justice select committee’s attention to the state of affairs, or passing my correspondence on to a minister for a response.

    Regards,


    Richard Taylor
    Cambridge
    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk

  20. Richard Taylor Article author

    The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s form asked a number of questions, these are my responses:

    Briefly tell us what your complaint is about. Tell us what happened, when and who was involved.
    I did not receive court listing information I believe I was entitled to under Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules when I requested it at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court on the 12th of August 2019. My request was made to an usher on duty outside court 3 at around 0940. The usher identified themselves only as “Julie”.

    How have you, or the person you represent, been affected by what has happened?
    The impacts are overwhelmingly societal rather than individual.

    If we are able to take on your complaint, what are you hoping we can achieve?
    Primarily I am seeking to ensure that if anyone makes a request for court listing information in the future they are promtly and politely provided with the information they are entitled to, taking a key step towards open justice in the UK.

  21. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner has replied:

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for your email and request that I refer your complaint against the Courts and Tribunal Service to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. I am very happy to do this.

    Indeed, I support the broader point made that openness and transparency must not be obstructed, with respect to the justice system. I will look to ask a written Parliamentary question on the topic in the near future with – hopefully – a chance to follow up on any answer provided by asking Lucy Frazer in the Commons to give her thoughts…

    With best wishes,
    Daniel Zeichner MP

    That’s an excellent prompt response.

  22. Richard Taylor Article author

    Inexplicably the ombudsman is using switch.egress.com to send me emails about this referral. It’s not clear what benefit the use of this service provides over plain email as no password / key has been supplied via other means, all the information required to access the message is contained in the email they’ve sent me.

    I now have to register with the switch.egress.com service to access their message.

    Having jumped through the hoops required I have obtained the message, which was dated Thursday, October 31, 2019 10:12 AM:

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Thank you for sending us your complaint about HM Courts & Tribunals Service

    This is to let you know that we have received your complaint and to give you some important information about our service.

    We will now pass your case to a caseworker to decide whether we should carry out an investigation. At the moment there will be a wait of six to eight weeks before this happens, as we are currently working on a higher number of cases. The caseworker will then contact you to discuss your complaint.

    Why we need to decide whether to investigate your complaint
    We investigate complaints where we can unless there is a good reason not to. This could be because we see that the organisation you complain about acted correctly, or because they have already acknowledged and put right any mistakes they made. We also have to check if we can investigate in line with our legal powers.

    We also look to resolve complaints quickly without the need for an investigation wherever we can.

    If we decide not to investigate, we will clearly explain why and offer help and advice where needed. If we decide to investigate, we will let you know and give you more information about what will happen next.

    You can find out more about what we do at this stage by reading our detailed guide. Click here to download our guide or give me a call and I will send a copy to you.

    You can get more information about how we work by visiting http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/make-a-complaint/what-happens-to-a-complaint

    How we use your information
    We often need to get more information to help with our consideration of your complaint and we may share details about you and your complaint with HM Courts & Tribunals Service. We may also ask for advice about your complaint from someone with specialist knowledge (for example, a health professional).

    If you do not want us to share the information you have given us with others, please tell us straight away.

    We carry out our work in private, which means we do not discuss or publish details of your complaint with anyone other than those involved. Sometimes we share our reports with other bodies responsible for regulating public services, such as the Care Quality Commission, in order to share learning from our work.

    We publish short, anonymised summaries of completed cases on our website and publicise these. If you do not want us to publish your case in this way, or have any questions, please let us know. You can find out more at http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/about-our-case-summaries.

    Only our staff or people acting on our behalf have access to the records we hold about your complaint. We want to check that we are providing a good service, so we might use your complaint for training and monitoring purposes.

    To find out more about what happens to the information you give us, please visit http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/information-you-give-us. If you would like us to send you further details, please let us know.

    Help us improve our service
    Our independent research company may also invite you to take part in a survey to help us improve our services. We survey people at different points throughout our process. Any feedback you give within these surveys will remain completely confidential, and your responses would only be shared in an anonymous format, unless you tell us otherwise.

    If you would prefer not to take part please call us on 0300 061 4222, or email customersurvey@ombudsman.org.uk.

    Yours sincerely

    Bev Donlan
    Intake Caseworker

    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman
    T: 0345 015 4033
    E: phso.enquiries@ombudsman.org.uk
    W: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk

  23. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have received further correspondence. I have removed the caseworker’s name as I have a limited capacity for dealing with challenges at the moment, and the risks involved in activism are greater than usual.

    Date: Thu, 30 Jan 2020 at 13:26
    Subject: C2103818 – Complaint

     

     

    Dear Mr Taylor

     

    I am writing to introduce myself and advise you that your complant about HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has been allocated to me.  I will read through all of the documents associated with the complaint and contact you again to clarify my understanding of your concerns.

     

    I note that you have not provided a telephone number and want contact by email therefore I aim to contact you again by email by 6 February 2020.

     

    In the meantime if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me using the details below

     

    Kind regards

     

     

     

    [removed]

    Caseworker

    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

    T:[removed]

    E: [removed]

    W: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk

     

    Please note my working days are Monday to Thursday.

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Further to my earlier email where I asked if you could provide copies of the email complaints you had submitted to HMCTS. You do not need to forward these as we already have them from your MP. Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused.

    Kind regards

    [removed]

    Caseworker

    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

    T: [removed]

    E: [removed]

    W: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk

    Please note my working days are Monday to Thursday.

    For instructions on accessing Egress, please see: http://download.egress.com/docs/Switch_Recipient_Guide.pdf Please be aware emails and files sent securely by Egress are only available online for 45 days. If you wish to keep a permanent copy of any files or correspondence, please download these to your device.

    From: [removed]
    Sent: 30 March 2020 14:4
    Subject: C2103818

    This message has been classified as Sensitive.

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Further to my email of 30 January 2020 please accept my sincere apologies for the delay in updating you about your complaint. This has been entirely my fault as I did not set any reminder alerts and I overlooked progressing your case. We are also experiencing delays as our offices are now closed in line with government guidelines and all staff are working from home which is having an impact on our ability to progress cases.

    I have been through the papers you provided but I do not have copies of the complaints you submitted to HMCTS therefore I have requested a copy of its complaint file in relation to your case. Due to the ongoing health crisis the courts are not in operation and HMCTS have advised us there may be some delays in providing this office with information whilst its staff deal with additional work caused by the courts being closed. If you are able to forward to me the emails you sent to HMCTS this may help speed up our assessment of your complaint but this is not essential as we will receive the file from HMCTS.

    From your complaint form I have summarised your complaint into the scope below and would request any comments you may have on this.

    Mr Richard Taylor complains about HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS). He says he did not receive court listing information he requested when he attended Cambridge Magistrates Court on 12 August 2019. Mr Taylor says he was entitled to receive this information under Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules.

    As an outcome to his complaint Mr Taylor is seeking service improvements so others do not experience the same issues he has.

    If you have any comments on this could you please provide them in an email to me by 6 April 2020. Also if you have any queries please send these by email and I will respond within three working days.

    Kind regards

    [removed]

    Caseworker

    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

    T: [removed]

    E: [removed]

    W: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk

    Please note my working days are Monday to Thursday.

  24. Richard Taylor Article author

    The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has written to me to say they have : “decided not to consider your complaint further; this is because we have seen no evidence that anything went seriously wrong”.

    I had already made the case for the importance of open justice, citing Lady Hale: ““The principle of open justice is one of the most precious in our law. It is there to reassure the public and the parties that our courts are indeed doing justice according to law” in my correspondence so I don’t see what more I could have done to impress on the ombudsman that this was a serious matter.

    The reference to “no evidence” is also troubling. As audio and visual recording is not permitted in the precincts of a court it is not permitted to collect evidence of how a request such as mine for a court list is responded to. Here there was evidence that on review the court, and the court and tribunal service centrally, took the view that it was reasonable for the full court listing not to have been provided on request.

    The decision letter states:

    It appears that you were provided with the specific information you verbally requested from court staff on 12 August 2019

    This is bizarre and false. If I had been provided with the information I requested there would not have been a problem and I would not have complained!

    The decision letter indicates that the ombudsman may agree with the idea that just because the doors of the courts are nominally open there is sufficient transparency. My view is this is not the case, it is not sufficient for the door to be open, you have to be able to find out what is going on in order to know which door to try and when.

    Imagine if local councils didn’t publish agendas or notices of meetings, but simply said the public galleries in council chambers were always open!

    This is not surprising result, it strengthens the case for improving the law both specifically on access to court lists and generally legislating to ensure we have open justice.

    I think the decision reasoning focuses excessively on the requirements of the criminal procedure rules rather than the broader principle of open justice.

    In Confidence
    Mr Richard Taylor
    By email

    7 April 2020

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Your complaint about HM Courts & Tribunal Service

    We have completed our consideration of your complaint about HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) and I am writing to tell you the outcome. To reach this decision we reviewed the information you have provided, the information provided by HMCTS and the Criminal Procedure Rules 2015. Having done this, we have decided not to consider your complaint further; this is because we have seen no evidence that anything went seriously wrong.

    I understand that our decision may be disappointing, but I will explain the reasons for this and the factors we have considered in our assessment of your complaint.

    Your complaint

    You complain about HMCTS, you say you did not receive full and detailed court listing information you requested when you attended Cambridge Magistrates Court on 12 August 2019. You say you were entitled to receive this information under Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules 2015.

    As an outcome to your complaint you are seeking service improvements, so others do not experience the same issues you had.

    Reasons for our decision

    You say you were not provided with information you requested at Cambridge Magistrates Court on 12 August 2019. You say you were entitled to the information requested under Criminal Procedure Rules (CPR) 2015 Rule 5.8 (6) .

    You say you asked a court usher for a copy of the full court listing for court 3 and were told you could not have it as it is electronic, and they do not print it off. You asked the court usher for details of the alleged offences and the pleas entered.
    You say you were provided with one-word answers for each of the allegations to be heard and informed they were all not guilty pleas.

    You say you believe you were entitled to the full court listing including information such as the name and address of the defendant, the date and details of the alleged offences and the law which the alleged offences were contrary to, and you were denied this information. You also say you then asked for the names of the magistrates and you were given these verbally and you asked for clarification of the spelling of the magistrates’ names, but this was not provided.

    You then spoke to the clerk and advised that you felt you were entitled to the information you had requested from the usher under CPR 2015 Rule 5.8 (6)(b) and (f). You said this information should be available to anyone who requested it. You say the clerk did not agree and said as the cases were being heard in open court this brought about openness.

    From the complaint file we can see you submitted a complaint to HMCTS via email on 17 August 2019 about the responses you received from the court staff on 12 August 2019.

    HMCTS responded to your complaint by email on 22 August 2019. It apologised that you were unable to receive the information about the court list that you had been seeking and for the brusque manner of the court usher, it said this was not intentional. The letter said the court staff were busy organising the court and had supplied you with the information you had requested in accordance with CPR 2015 Rule 5.8.

    HMCTS confirmed it was not required to provide the information in writing. In its response letter of 12 September 2019, it referenced CPR Rule 5.8 (2) which says: –


    (2) A person who wants information about a case from the court officer must—
    (a) apply to the court officer;
    (b) specify the information requested; and
    (c) pay any fee prescribed

    It said you were verbally given the information you had requested, in line with CPR 2015 Rule 5.8 (5) which says: -

    (5) The court officer must supply that information—
    (a) by word of mouth; or
    (b) in writing, including by—
    (i) written certificate or extract, or
    (ii) such arrangements as the Lord Chancellor directs.

    We have reviewed the CPR Rules 5.8 (6) (b) and (f) which you referred to in your complaint, these say: –

    (6) The information that paragraph (4) requires the court officer to supply is—
    (a) the date of any hearing in public, unless any party has yet to be notified of that date;
    (b) each alleged offence and any plea entered;
    (c) the court’s decision at any hearing in public, including any decision about—
    (i) bail, or
    (ii) the committal, sending or transfer of the case to another court;
    (d) whether the case is under appeal;
    (e) the outcome of the case; and
    (f) the identity of—
    (i) the prosecutor,
    (ii) the defendant,
    (iii) the parties’ representatives, including their addresses, and (iv) the judge, magistrate or magistrates, or justices’ legal adviser by whom a decision at a hearing in public was made.

    Having reviewed CPR 2015 Rule 5.8 (5) which says the court officer must provide the information by word of mouth OR in a written format. It appears that you were provided with the specific information you verbally requested from court staff on 12 August 2019 and we have found no indications of maladministration here.

    In summary, we have decided we will not take further action on your complaint. I hope I have explained the thorough consideration we have given to our decision and clearly outlined the reasons for it.

    If you have any feedback about our service or decision, then please let me know within one month of the date of this letter.

    We recognise that everyone has different needs and circumstances, and these are likely to influence the way you access our service. If you need this letter in a different format, please contact me on the details at the top of this letter to discuss your accessibility requirements.

    Please note there are some important details about how we use your information at the bottom of this letter.

    Yours sincerely

  25. Richard Taylor Article author

    In the response letter the ombudsman has invited me to provide: “feedback about our service or decision”. While it appears any such feedback will not result necessarily in a reconsideration of the decision not to consider my complaint further I have decided to offer some comments in the hope they will lead to improvements in the service for others who make complaints in the future, and as they may result in improved reasoning, or reconsideration, in this case.

    Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman,

    When you recently sent me your decision not to consider my complaint in relation to the non-provision of court listing information by the courts and tribunal service further you invited me to provide feedback about your service and the decision.

    In the interests of seeking to improve your service I have decided to share my views.

    It is not clear to me from your correspondence if the decision, and reasoning, reflect the considered, corporate, view of the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman. While the correspondence does state: “we have decided” it appears possible that the decision and reasoning are based on the work, and judgment, of an individual caseworker acting alone. If there has been any degree of oversight, cross-checking, or review, or indeed sign-off by the ombudsman or a deputy, that hasn’t been communicated.

    Given the key role of the ombudsman I would not expect cases to be dealt with by one individual acting alone, and would have more confidence in the process had there been oversight, cross-checking, review, or sign-off by the ombudsman or a deputy and that had been communicated.

    Turning to the specific case, a key conclusion presented is:

    “It appears that you were provided with the specific information you verbally requested from court staff”

    The basis for this statement is not set out. If the information requested had been provided there would not have been a complaint. The substance of the complaint was that the information requested had not been provided.

    I note the decision does not explicitly say if the one-word details of the alledged offences provided, eg.  ”Assault” and “Fraud” when court listing information was requested are deemed sufficient by the ombudsman. Issues such as this at the core of the complaint have not been specifically addressed. I would have liked to have seen explicit clarity, either the ombudsman should state a view those are sufficient details, or I would suggest, uphold my complaint.
    The consideration of the complaint appears to have focused narrowly on Rule 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 rather than considering the wider principle of open justice, this is despite the wider principle being referenced in the complaint.

    The decision letter states: “we have seen no evidence that anything went seriously wrong”. There is no acknowledgment that the collection of strong evidence, such as audio/video recording of exchanges in court buildings may not be practical. Signs up in the building in question stated, [perhaps not entirely accurately]:

    “it is an offence to take photographs, record video clips or make unauthorised audio recordings anywhere in the hearing centre”

    There are many situations where individuals encountering state officials may face such restrictions, perhaps intended to make it hard to collect evidence of errors or wrongdoing, and I think it would be helpful if the ombudsman recognised that.

    In this particular case the facts were not as I understand it contested by the court and tribunal service so their responses to the complaint could reasonably have been considered evidence confirming what had happened. The responses to the complaint confirmed the problem, and demonstrated that it was not only a problem with one individual, or one court, but an institutional issue within the courts and tribunal service. I would have expected an institutional issue to have been considered as more serious than an issue with one individual or one court.

    The reasoning given to support the conclusion that “we have seen no evidence that anything went seriously wrong” is not clear leading me to wonder if the ombudsman does not consider open justice to be an important, serious, principle worthy of upholding.

    The decision letter refers to, and quotes, my report of the court clerk’s view that “as the cases were being heard in open court this brought about openness”. No comment is directly made on if the ombudsman agrees, or not, with this view, though perhaps it could be inferred from the context that the ombudsman is sympathetic to it as it is presented under a heading of “Reasons for our decision” following a conclusion “we have seen no evidence that anything went seriously wrong” when full court listing information was not provided on request. I think there should have been consideration of the validity of this view, and of the utility of court listing information in enabling people to observe a case in open court. Due consideration does not appear to have been given to the role of court listing information in enabling people to find out when and where court cases are to be heard. The doors to a court may be unlocked, but without court listing information one cannot determine when and where cases of interest are being heard. Accurate and responsible reporting is also frustrated by the lack of court listing information.  

    I hope the ombudsman will consider reviewing the decision and/or how it has been justified.

    Regards,

    Richard Taylor

  26. Richard Taylor Article author

    While above comment shows currently challenges obtaining court listing information extend to mainstream journalists I think one challenge in getting better access to lists is generally the media do obtain court listing information under the Protocol on sharing court lists, registers and documents with the media. Those who can access court lists easily may not understand, and report on the challenges faced by, those who cannot.

    For open justice court lists (and registers) need to be accessible to all. Examples of those who might want access to court listing information include:

    • Those interested in how matters are being dealt with by the courts, interests might be personal, or professional, and might be based on a geographic area of interest, or a particular subject of interest. (That’s a broad grouping, but it emphasises that essentially anyone might want access to court lists).
    • Lawyers wishing to follow or comment on cases they’re not directly involved in
    • Students and trainees, in law, probation, journalism and other areas looking for cases of interest.
    • Campaign groups, looking to observe cases in related to their work. (Imagine the kind of cases cycling campaigners would be interested in for example)
    • Elected representatives, or prospective candidates, looking to follow how the justice system is working.
    • Those considering a certain course of action interested in how the courts are treating others who have taken similar action. This could include for example those considering certain forms of protest or activism, or those wishing to take part in an ambiguously regulated leisure activity.
  27. Richard Taylor Article author

    Further correspondence:

    From: [same caseworker as previously]
    Date: Mon, 20 Apr 2020 at 12:24
    Subject: RE: C2103818
    To: Richard Taylor

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Thank you for your email and I apologise for the delay in acknowledging this.

    I will review your comments and aim to provide a response by 23 April 2020, however if this is not possible I will update you.

    Kind regards

    [same caseworker as previously]
    Caseworker
    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman
    T: [phone number removed]
    E: [email address removed]
    W: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk

    Please note my working days are Monday to Thursday.

    For instructions on accessing Egress, please see: http://download.egress.com/docs/Switch_Recipient_Guide.pdf  Please be aware emails and files sent securely by Egress are only available online for 45 days. If you wish to keep a permanent copy of any files or correspondence, please download these to your device.

  28. Richard Taylor Article author

    A response to my feedback has been provided:

    From: [same caseworker as previously]
    Date: Tue, 21 Apr 2020 at 12:40
    Subject: C2103818
    To: Richard Taylor

     

    Dear Mr Taylor

     

    Thank you for your email providing feedback on our assessment of your complaint. We have now considered this and provided our response below.

    The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman operates a scheme of delegated powers to key personnel within the organisation.  All decisions are quality checked and signed off by the appropriate staff member with delegated authority.  Your complaint was assessed by a caseworker and signed off by an Operations Manager who has the delegated authority to do this.  We are sorry that this was not clear in our letter.

    We understand from your complaint that you asked court staff for specific information relating to the court listings in court three.  You say you initially asked for the full court listing and was advised that you could not have it as it is held electronically and is not printed off. In our letter we referred to CPR 2015 Rule 5.8 (5) which says information can be provided by word of mouth.  In your complaint you say you then asked specifically for details of the offences, the pleas entered and the names of the magistrates and you say you were provided with this information.

    In our letter we advised that we had reviewed the CPR Rules 5.8 (6) (b) and (f) which you had specifically referred to in your complaint, these say: -

    (6) The information that paragraph (4) requires the court officer to supply is—

    (b) each alleged offence and any plea entered;

    (c) the court’s decision at any hearing in public, including any decision about—

    (i) bail, or

    (ii) the committal, sending or transfer of the case to another court;

    (d) whether the case is under appeal;

    (e) the outcome of the case; and

    (f) the identity of—

    (i) the prosecutor,

    (ii) the defendant,

    (iii) the parties’ representatives, including their addresses, and (iv) the judge, magistrate or magistrates, or justices’ legal adviser by whom a decision at a hearing in public was made.

     
    The Ombudsman consideration of your complaint was if there was any maladministration identified.  We can see from the evidence available that you were provided with details of the alleged offences, the pleas entered and the names of the magistrates.  The CPR 5.8 does not stipulate that any more information is required therefore the Ombudsman view is that sufficient detail was provided in accordance with the regulations.

    As previously mentioned the consideration of your complaint was to determine if there was any maladministration.  HMCTS work in accordance with the CPR 2015 and the Ombudsman view is that there was no maladministration identified.  We can see that HMCTS have apologised for the brusque manner in which you were spoken to by the court usher and explained that it was a busy time when you approached the court staff and the priority for the court staff is to ensure court proceedings run effectively. There is no provision in the CPR 5.8 that information has to be provided immediately.

    We recognise that it is not practical to have robust evidence for all complaints.  Our decision is based on the evidence that is available, our letter explaining our decision did advise we had reviewed the information you provided in your complaint form, your complaint emails to HMCTS and its responses and the relevant regulations.

     
    We can see the complaint responses from HMCTS acknowledge your concerns, apologised the manner of the usher was brusque and confirmed that all court staff at Cambridge have been reminded of their obligations to provide information in line with the CPR.

    Our decision letter does quote what you say the court clerk said to you. This was put in the letter as part of the background to your complaint, it was not to demonstrate whether the Ombudsman agrees or not with this view.  The role of the Ombudsman is to review you complaint to determine if there was any maladministration. The evidence shows that the information you requested was not available to you in a printed format and when you asked for specific information you were provided with this.  We accept that it was not in the manner or detail you were expecting but we found no evidence that the CPR was breached.  We can see from the response letters from HMCTS that the staff involved in discussions with you, as well as other staff in the court, have been reminded of their obligations to provide information in accordance with the regulations and we consider this is reasonable action to address your complaint.

     

    The Ombudsman cannot make an organisation changes its policies and procedures or standards and guidance. We note the HMCTS have advised you in its response letters that it is not aware of any future plans to publish court listings on line with sensitive information redacted.

     

    We are sorry our decision letter did not provide enough detail and hope that this response provides clarity on our decision.  If you are not satisfied with this response you can request a review by completing the attached form and returning it within one month.  There is more information about the review process which you may find helpful, on our website at https://www.ombudsman.org.uk/about-us/feedback-about-our-service

     

    Kind regards

     

     

     

    [same caseworker as previously]

    Caseworker

    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

    T: [phone number removed]

    E: [email address removed]

    W: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk

     

    Please note my working days are Monday to Thursday.

     

    For instructions on accessing Egress, please see: http://download.egress.com/docs/Switch_Recipient_Guide.pdf  Please be aware emails and files sent securely by Egress are only available online for 45 days. If you wish to keep a permanent copy of any files or correspondence, please download these to your device.

    There are a lot of words there but in essence:

    • They have repeated the inexplicable statement that: “you say you were provided with this information”, when clearly if I had been provided with the information requested there would not have been a problem.
    • There is no explanation for the exclusive focus on the Criminal Procedure Rules and no consideration of the basic principle of open justice.
    • The response states: “you were provided with details of the alleged offences”, this was not the case, and this is one of the substantive elements of my complaint. The details of an alleged offence on a court list is not just eg. “An assault”, but the listing would be expected to give more details such as the time, and place of the alleged assault, and perhaps information on who was assaulted. This is the kind of information which is required by a user of the court list. The response does now clearly state: ” the Ombudsman view is that sufficient detail was provided in accordance with the regulations” however there is no reasoning given to explain the basis of that key conclusion.
    • The fact I was not provided with other information from the court list, such as information required to precisely identify the defendant, for example their address and age/date of birth, has not been considered

    The ombudsman appears to have given up on the bizarre “Egress switch” system, the latter two messages were sent by plain email.

    A copy of the feedback form attached is available via the ombudsman’s website.

    I am surprised that I have to write back again to request a review of the decision.

  29. Richard Taylor Article author

    There are three substantive questions on the feedback form, along with, as is usual for a public body, lots of questions asking for things they already know, such as my name.

    1. What do you think we got wrong in reaching our decision? Please provide clear and specific details about what we did rather than what the organisation you complained about did

    You have focused on the Criminal Procedure Rules rather than considering a breach of the wider principle of open justice.

    You have interpreted the requirements in the Criminal Procedure Rules to provide, on request, information on “each alleged offence” unreasonably narrowly, and have failed to explain the rationale for the interpretation adopted. You have not shown consideration of the likely intent of the rules.

    You have inaccurately claimed that I was provided with the information I requested. You have not shown an understanding of the nature of the information which was requested, but not supplied. (I would expect the full court listing would include details of the times, locations, and description of alleged offences, and for example information required to unambiguously identify the defendant(s) such as their date of birth and address.)

    You have failed to consider the consequences of full court listing information not being freely available on request.

    2. Please explain why you think the points you made in section 1 would make a difference to our decision or might change it

    Consideration of the principle of open justice, and the consequences of full court listing information not being freely available on request may lead to a different conclusion on the seriousness of the failure to provide the full court listing information on request.

    Interpreting the requirement in the Criminal Procedure Rules to provide, on request, information on “each alleged offence” more broadly, may lead to you upholding my complaint.

    Considering the complaint in the context of a breach of the principle of open justice may lead to you upholding my complaint.

    Understanding the nature of the information requested, but not supplied, will enable the substance of this complaint to be taken into account.

    3. What would you like to see happen as a result of this review request? Please explain what you think we could do to resolve your complaint that we have not done already.

    You could address the matters I have listed in response to question one; I hope that as a result of doing so my complaint would be upheld.

    While I understand the ombudsman cannot directly change the policy of the Courts and Tribunal Service I hope that if this complaint is upheld that would prompt policy change so I and others would obtain court listing information on request promptly and easily in the future.

    If the review concludes that a failure to provide full court listing information on request, in the context of my request, was acceptable that will I hope assist in making the case for changes to the law, and/or policy and practice so open justice can be (re)established.

    Whatever the conclusion of the review I hope it will assist in progress towards a fairer, safer, society.

  30. Richard Taylor Article author

    Mark Hanna, whose twitter bio states: “Co-author McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, a senior teacher at Sheffield University’s Dept of Journalism Studies, chair of NCTJ media law exams board”, has endorsed my suggestion to add “a section on open justice to the definition of “the overriding objective” within both the criminal and civil procedure rules” saying it is a: “Good idea”.

  31. Richard Taylor Article author

    Update:

    ———- Forwarded message ———
    From: [name removed] @ombudsman.org.uk
    Date: Tue, 30 Jun 2020 at 18:40
    Subject: Our reference: R-01351
    To: [email address]

    (Please note that parts of this email may have been anonymised for confidentiality reasons)

     

    Dear Mr Taylor

     

    I have been asked to look at you concerns about our decision on your complaint.

     

    If you would like to discuss this with me please let me know and I can call you.  Alternatively you can email me.

     

    If you have any questions please let me know.

     

    In the meantime I will consider the information you have provided about why you are unhappy with our decision.

     

    Kind regards

     

    [name removed]

    Senior Caseworker – Review and Feedback Team

    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

    T: [phone number]

    E: [name removed]ombudsman.org.uk

    W: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk

  32. Richard Taylor Article author

    The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman have now issued their final decision.

    My summary of their view is that they think its acceptable, given the current state of the law, for the courts service to withhold court lists from members of the public.

    In Confidence
    Mr Richard Taylor
    By email: [email address]

    3 September 2020
    Dear Mr Taylor
    Your complaint about HMCTS
    I write further to my email of 30 June 2020 concerning your complaint about
    HMCTS. I have considered your review request and decided that no further action
    is required. I will explain the decision in this letter.
    Your original complaint concerned your attendance at Cambridge Magistrates Court
    on 12 August 2019 as a member of the public. You said that you asked the Court
    staff for the day’s Court listing information under Rule 5.8 of the Criminal
    Procedure Rules 2015 (the Rules). You were not satisfied you were given all the
    information you wanted and were unhappy with how the staff dealt with you.
    PHSO considered your complaint and found no failings by HMCTS.
    Your review request
    In brief you have raised the following concerns about our decision.
    * PHSO has focused on the Rules rather than considering a breach of the wider
    principle of open justice.
    I noted that the Caseworker who dealt with your complaint gave you the
    opportunity to comment on her understanding of it. I am satisfied that she
    identified the basis of your complaint was how HMCTS interpreted the Rules.
    Therefore, it was appropriate for the Caseworker to base her consideration of your
    complaint on them.
    * PHSO interpreted the Rules too narrowly and have not explained the
    rationale for this
    I have seen that the Caseworker set out in her decision letter the parts of the
    Rules that she understood HMCTS had satisfied. Furthermore, when you asked for
    additional clarification, she followed this up with her email of 21 Apr 2020. From
    what I have seen she provided the necessary information to explain PHSO’s
    decision.

    * PHSO did not consider the likely intent of the rules
    As I have noted above, the Caseworker appropriately identified that your
    complaint was about HMCTS’ interpretation of the Rules. Furthermore, I have
    seen no reason to question her view that HMCTS’ application of them was
    reasonable.
    * You were not provided with the information you requested, as PHSO has
    claimed
    According to your original complaint to HMCTS you asked the usher for the “details
    of each alleged offence and any plea entered, for court three here this morning”
    You were given this information, but not in the manner you wanted. I am satisfied
    PHSO’s decision reflected this.
    * PHSO has failed to consider the consequences of full court listing
    information not being freely available on request.
    When looking at a complaint PHSO’s first consideration is whether there was a
    failing in the actions of the organisation complained about. If there is a failing
    PHSO will go on to consider the impact of this. There were no failings in your
    complaint so PHSO did not consider the impact (or consequences as you have
    stated). This was appropriate under the circumstances.
    Summary
    Thank you for raising your concerns with PHSO. However, after a thorough
    consideration of them we have not found any reasons to doubt our decision and we
    are not taking any further action on your complaint. I hope that the information in
    this letter clarifies our reasons for this.
    Our consideration of your review request marks the end of our complaints process.
    Yours sincerely

    [name removed]
    Senior Caseworker – Review and Feedback Team

  33. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have written to my MP in the hope that they will act and take this further:

    Daniel Zeichner,

    In October 2019 you referred a complaint I had made about the non-provision of court listing information at Cambridge Magistrate’s court to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

    I have now received the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s final response, which, in summary says that in their view providing court listing information, for a specific court session, in the form:


    1. An Assault
    2. Possession of a controlled drug
    3. Fraud

    satisfies the current legal requirements.

    This level of detail is clearly not sufficient information to, for example, identify cases of interest to observe and report on.

    Open justice is one of the foundations of our society. The doors of court rooms being nominally open to anyone who finds them is not sufficient to provide openness, it’s essential to be able to find out when and where cases are due to be heard.

    I hope you are able to pursue this matter further. I have previously suggested to you that adding a section on open justice to the definition of “the overriding objective” within both the criminal and civil procedure rules might help address the problem.

    I have published all my correspondence in relation to this matter at:

    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/open-justice-fail-cambridge-magistrates.html

    Regards,

    Richard Taylor

  34. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridge’s MP Daniel Zeichner has replied to me:

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for your message. I am happy to write to Ministers to suggest they consider enacting the change to the civil and criminal procedure rules as proposed, and will share with you a copy of any letter sent.

    I am assuming that you would prefer to be named in the letter as having raised this subject with me, but please do let me know if you’d rather I did not.

    Yours sincerely,
    Daniel Zeichner MP

  35. Richard Taylor Article author

    My MP Daniel Zeichner has written to another MP who is a justice minister:

    Lucy Frazer QC MP
    Minister of State
    Ministry of Justice
    102 Petty France
    London
    SW1H 9AJ
    Our Ref: ZA90424 10 September 2020

    Dear Lucy,
    Openness and Transparency Within the Court System

    I am writing to you regarding concerns raised by a constituent about the lack of information provided
    to members of the press and public when attending court sessions.

    The constituent made a complaint against the Courts and Tribunals Service last year following a
    refusal by staff at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court to provide them with full details of a case to be heard
    above and beyond the scant information published on the noticeboard outside the courtroom. The
    information they requested included a disclosure of the name of the magistrate judge overseeing the
    hearing and full details of the offences alleged to have been committed by the defendant.

    The constituent believed that the response by the court staff was in contravention of the Criminal
    Procedure Rules 2015 and cited this in their complaint. The complaint was not upheld, and nor was it
    when it was referred to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Indeed, the Ombudsman
    confirmed that the summary details of a case disclosed at the court (which consisted of a numbered list
    of the charges with no further information) satisfies the current legal requirements under the rules.

    With the current interpretation of the rules clarified I agree with my constituent that, by allowing
    courts to continue withholding details from the public and press about cases heard, open justice is not
    being carried out. They suggest that this can be addressed by simply adding a section on open justice
    to the definition of the “overriding objective” within both the criminal and civil procedure rules.

    In my view, to fulfil the goal of full transparency within the criminal justice system, it is essential for
    as much information to be provided in writing as possible in advance of a hearing. With that in mind, I
    ask if you and the Secretary of State for Justice can seriously consider the proposed change to the rules
    suggested by my constituent.

    I look forward to hearing from you soon regarding this matter.

    Yours sincerely

    Daniel Zeichner
    Member of Parliament for Cambridge

  36. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have noticed that the Application for summons or warrant for arrest for alleged offence under Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 section 1, CrimPR 7.2(6) form contains a section in which the “Alleged offence(s)” are requested and examples given are single words “(e.g. ‘theft’, ‘assault’, etc.)”

    Further down the form there is a section requesting: “Details of the alleged offence(s)” which sets out:

    CrimPR 7.3 requires that an allegation of an offence in an application for the issue of a summons or warrant must contain (a) a statement of the offence that (i) describes the offence in ordinary language, and (ii) identifies any legislation that creates it; and (b) such particulars of the conduct constituting the commission of the offence as to make clear what the prosecutor alleges against the defendant.

    As described there Criminal Procedure Rule 7.3 sets out what a “statement of the offence” must contain.

    The reference to “each alleged offence” in rule 5.8 6 (b) which sets out what information the public are entitled to appears to correspond with the phrase “Alleged offence” on the form – perhaps that is where confusion has arisen – perhaps that in-part explains why single word descriptions of offences were considered sufficient information to provide on request. Perhaps the wording on the form has confused the courts service as to what information ought be released on request.

    My view is the information available to the public should surely contain the same information as the “statement of the offence”. Perhaps MPs could have been clearer when setting the law, they could have used the same phrase in rule 7.3 and 5.8 of the criminal procedure rules and defined it once. The fact they did not do so could though be interpreted if different meanings were intended. I don’t think this is MPs’ fault though, I don’t think it could have been reasonably foreseeable that the courts service might try to describe offences in a single word rather than provide the public, on request, with the full statement of the offence. My understanding is the full court lists do contain the “details of the alleged offence(s)” / “statement of the offence(s)” and not just one word descriptions of the offence(s).

  37. Richard Taylor Article author

    My MP Daniel Zeichner has passed on the following letter from a minister:

    Chris Philp MP
    Parliamentary Under-
    Secretary of State

    Daniel Zeichner MP
    House of Commons
    London
    SW1A 0AA

    MP ref: ZA90424
    MoJ ref: MC81645

    14 October 2020

    Dear Daniel,

    TRANSPARENCY

    Thank you for your letter of 10 September, addressed to Lucy Frazer QC MP, on behalf of your
    constituent, who states that there is a lack of case information provided to members of the press and
    public when attending court sessions. I am responding as the Minister responsible for policy in this area.
    Open justice remains a fundamental principle of the courts and tribunals. From 1 September 2020, the
    public and legal professionals can view magistrates’ courts listing online by visiting http://www.CourtServe.net.
    This change supports transparency and brings magistrates’ courts in line with other jurisdictions.
    The Criminal Procedure Rules already provide a comprehensive regime enabling members of the public
    to obtain information about the details of current and recent cases, subject to reporting restrictions, the
    interests of victims and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. However, in the interests of defendants and
    victims, requests must be about individual cases, not a general request about every case before a court.
    Disclosure is more limited under the Civil Procedure rules as these are matters between parties.
    However, registers of claims in the High Court are available for inspection. Disclosure of the details of
    family proceedings are also restricted, particularly where children are involved. However, anonymised
    judgements are regularly released for the information of the public on family proceedings.
    I hope the above information is helpful in clarifying the government’s position on the transparency of court
    sessions.

    CHRIS PHILP MP

    I am considering what to do next, and have drafted this reply to my MP:

    Daniel Zeichiner

    Many thanks for passing on the response from Chris Philip, Minister for the Courts, regarding access to court listing information.

    The minister’s response provides yet more confirmation of the existence of a highly unsatisfactory situation where the public cannot obtain full court lists. The full court listing is essential for identifying cases of interest and finding out when and where they are to be heard. Without access to such lists the courts are not effectively operating openly. The letter from the minister is further clear evidence that we do have a problem.

    No basis for the statement: “requests must be about individual cases, not a general request about every case before a court” is offered, this requirement appears likely to be a policy / practice rather than anything based on law. I think it is arguable it is a policy / practice in conflict with section 5.8 of the The Criminal Procedure Rules 2020 (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/759/article/5.8/made).

    A statement is made that the restriction on access to information is “in the interests of defendants and victims” but this is not expanded on.  The interests of victims are generally protected via reporting restrictions and not via restricting access to observe court cases, or restricting access to listing information about court cases which would enable such observation (with exceptions for youth and family courts).

    It appears the minister’s response sets out the government’s position but notably does not include the minister’s explicit view on if that position is acceptable or not.

    Reference is made to magistrates’ courts listings now being available online via http://www.CourtServe.net. The practice of publishing such material via a private company’s website behind a rather onerous registration wall is bizarre. More importantly the lists published are not the full, standard, lists but rather what are known as “noticeboard” lists.  These contain very little information, just: “List” (a number), Name (of the defendant(s)), an untitled column which I believe lists the prosecuting body, a room number, a time and a case number.  This kind of list might help identify which courtroom a case is due to be heard in once aware of a defendant’s name or case number, but it does not significantly aid identification of cases of interest, nor does it support responsible reporting in the way that the provision of the full, “standard”, court list does. For the minister to state to you that magistrates’ courts listings are available online but not make clear the very limited nature of the published listings risks being misleading.  Particularly the moment one might expect published lists to include information to enable remote access to observe, or listen-in, to cases but this too isn’t included in the published listing information.

    According to the minister’s response it appears that while my request for: “details of each alleged offence and any plea entered, for court three here this morning” was denied, had I requested details in respect of just two, specified, cases of the three listed I may have been entitled to the full listing information for those cases. That is obviously a ridiculous situation.

    I note that I have in the past requested court listing information on specific cases but those requests have been denied on the basis that it would take too much time to identify specific cases from my description of those cases I was interested in, even though I consider my request was very precise and limited:

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/upcoming_cases_at_cambridge_magi

    even when I have requested listing information on a single specific case that has not been forthcoming either:

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/scheduled_court_appearances_for

    As for next steps, I have already proposed changing the law to make open justice one of the elements of the overriding objective in the procedure rules.

    Rule 5.8 of The Criminal Procedure Rules 2020 could be strengthened to make clear it provides a right of access to listing information relating to multiple cases, however I think it is already very clear.

    The minister could be asked to expand on his statement: “requests must be about individual cases, not a general request about every case before a court” and asked to explain how it is compatible with Rule 5.8 of The Criminal Procedure Rules 2020 and the principle of open justice.

    My rejected request related only to a series of three cases scheduled to be heard in a particular room of one hearing centre on a specific morning.  The minister could be asked to specifically consider if that request was “a general request about every case before a court” and so should have been rejected.

  38. Richard Taylor Article author

    Another example of basic court listing information being refused:

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