Why we need open courts data – and newspapers need to improve too


Justice photo by mira66

Few things sum up the division of the UK around the riots like the sentencing of those involved. Some think courts are too lenient, while others gape at six month sentences for people who stole a bottle of water.

These judgments are often made on the basis of a single case, rather than any overall view. And you might think, in such a situation, that a journalist’s role would be to find out just how harsh or lenient sentencing has been – not just across the 1,600 or more people who have been arrested during the riots, but also in comparison to previous civil disturbances – or indeed, to similar crimes outside of a riot situation.

As Martin Belam argues:

“Really good data journalism will help us untangle the truth from those prejudiced assumptions. But this is data journalism that needs to stay the course, and seems like an ideal opportunity to do “long-form data journalism”. How long will these looters serve? What is the ethnic make-up and age range of those convicted? How many other criminals will get an early release because our jails are newly full of looters? How many people convicted this week will go on to re-offend?”

And yet, amazingly, we cannot reliably answer these questions – because it is still not possible to get raw data on sentencing in UK courts, not even through FOI.

In the absence of such data, The Guardian are attempting to collate data on convictions at magistrates courts (the Crown Courts have yet to get going), with over 200 cases in their spreadsheet.

It’s a laudable endeavour – but the very fact that they have to undertake it should be an embarrassment to the English and Welsh justice system.

Justice is blind – but so are we

The aphorism – from a case in the 1920s – that justice must not only be done, but “must also be seen to be done” is still not carried through into practical acts. A year ago Heather Brooke wrote about her own experiences along these lines, and the court’s desire to maintain “control” over recordings of court proceedings:

“Control” is exactly what a court shouldn’t be exerting. Once it is decided that it is open, there should be no restriction on how that open hearing is processed. She went on to say that she’d allow me to record now but I’d have to wait for a future ruling before I could “use” the recording. The next day in court the Judge announced she’d made her ruling. “Please turn your tape recorder off,” she said, looking sternly at me over her glasses. I did so.

8 months before that Will Perrin wrote about the problems of hyperlocal bloggers wishing to report on their courts.

Little has changed.

In frustration at this, a number of coders around the country have been attempting to find ways to record what happens in court. Examples include Cause List (cases being heard in the courts of England and Wales right now), InCourts Daily (simply names and times of cases being heard – it has dozens of Twitter accounts for particular regions) and the long-running BAILII, which publishes partial information on case law but this year hit funding problems (another useful resource is The Law Pages).

There is generic sentencing data on Data.gov.uk – but not at a level of detail or timeliness that would allow you to answer basic questions about ‘justice being done’ (in contrast, sentencing data for Scottish courts at the Judiciary of Scotland site, includes RSS feeds for sentencing statements and summaries of opinion, among others).

Newspapers: publish in structured formats

Meanwhile, there’s been a steady decline in court reporting across the regional press and national news agencies which has made the situation worse.

What remains – those dry court reports that fill the space between adverts in most local newspapers – could in theory be of use to those who want to ask bigger questions than “Which one of my neighbours has been in trouble?”

But it is being published online in a format which makes it far from easy for anyone to interrogate – including newspapers’ own journalists.

Take, for example, the Telegraph & Argus’s court pages: an RSS feed which says nothing more than “The following have been dealt with by Bradford magistrates” and dozens of judgments condensed into four paragraphs (there is some structure which you can extract into a table – but it could be easier).

Even a specialist service like Court News UK only appears to deal in stories, while, interestingly, the Wigan World website (which has partnered with the local paper) is a rarity in presenting court sentences in a basic table with an accompanying search facility. (If you know of any good examples of online court data, please let me know).

There’s something to be learned here: if newspapers published comprehensive sentencing data in tables, it’s more likely that users will help find the stories in them.

Meanwhile, sentencing data is increasingly (and arbitrarily) being published on Twitter by police authorities – starting with the West Midlands and Manchester – and journalists need to be able both to deal with that information, and check it.

If journalists are to do more than provide a platform for a blame game, we need to put pressure on the courts to publish as much sentencing data as possible, in as open a format as possible, and as close to real time as possible. Justice must be seen to be done.

22 thoughts on “Why we need open courts data – and newspapers need to improve too

  1. Sarah Booker

    Newspapers I have worked for used to run lists of all completed court cases at magistrates’. The last I heard at my previous title, the court was refusing to supply printed versions of the list or electronic versions.

    A few years earlier, when I was reporting, the court would regularly refuse to give me paperwork, stating its “printer had broken” and then introducing a seven-day rule. It’s a battle.

    Saying this, reduced staffing at regional titles has severely limited court coverage, which is never a good thing.

  2. Momoko Price

    Paul, if you ever hear of groups coming together to push for this, let me know because I will join in the lobbying for it.

    Before I joined BuzzData I thought a fantastic visualization/web tool for Canadians would be a cumulative timeline of arrests and existing cases still going through the courts since the G8/G20 summits last year.

    I proposed the idea to editors I knew, and they loved it. But they expected it would be impossible. Boy was it ever. I visited courts in and outside Toronto, tracked down lawyer after lawyer, and consulted the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and lawyers for G20 class-action suits — even they said they were having trouble tracking down all the cases and the status updates on them.

    I asked for bail hearing dockets and transcripts of bail hearings during the G20 weekend, only to find out that in Ontario, a single page of court transcript alone costs $3. Not feasible for a freelance journalist.

    In the end I gave up and moved on and kind of hate myself for doing so. But after months of trying, it got too frustrating for just one person.

    One civil liberties lawyer suggested I file an FOI for the documents behind the Attorney General’s bi-annual G20 case updates (http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/g20_case_update.asp), but then said it would probably be pointless for a timeline visualization because by the time they would have answered the FOI request, the data would be months out-of-date.

    I should still file that FOI, though, now that I think about it … might not do for a timeline, but still — extremely valuable data.

  3. william perrin

    thanks for this paul very helpful. can i add one important point though that you haven’t touched upon that is the major obstacle to open data here. rehabilitation and re-employment of offenders.

    after a certain number of years you don’t have to declare your conviction to a potential employer. this can be a great help in getting back to work. you have paid your debt to society, your offence is spent and you can move on. this principle is deeply embedded in the criminal justice system for rehabilitating ex offenders.

    this of course dates from a pre-internet era. if your historic offence is readily googlable, then much of the ‘spent offences’ regime is torpedoed. you would need rejig the offender rights system to something more akin to other equality legislation such as gender or racial equality where the attribute which might be discriminated against is not concealed, but the onus is on the discriminatee to enforce their rights in law through the courts and tribunal system..

    we can be reasonably confident that if all courts provided open sentencing data a ‘data base of british criminals’ would appear rapidly, based say in the phillipines that would then sell its service to unscrupulous employers.

    ther’s a balance of rights here between the public’s right to know, the ex offenders rights and society’s need to encourage rehabilitation.

    but overall the old regime can’t co-exist with (a) the internet and (b) open data. now is a good moment to change it.

    we had a first stage discussion on this issue at the crime and justice open data panel and we shall return to it at the next and in correspondence – see my contributions to the comments on this blog post


    the more of a debate we have now the better, it helps us on the panel make the case for change. though with the riots we must remember the old aphorism that hard cases make bad law.

    one small point – in your post you seem to elide crown courts and magistrates courts a bit – the real meat of sentencing that interests people is in the hundreds of magistrates courts at a local level. This is of less pruient interest to journalists, but of much more to communities.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Yes, I didn’t mention that issue, largely because the post was about sentencing data without the names of offenders (if we can redact council spending, it’s even easier to redact sentencing data).

      That said, once we get past the principle of data rights we can move on to the practicalities of spent convictions etc. (There’s also a broader issue of employers googling applicants, which I understand is not, strictly speaking, allowed – and beyond that there’s the move at EU level towards a ‘right to be forgotten’, either of which may have implications here). The conditions mentioned in Judith’s comment below are interesting on that front – not sure how well the newspapers tend old court reports on their websites.

  4. Claire Miller

    One of the problems currently is if you can get the data from courts in the form of the day’s court lists they are usually in the kind of format that make life very difficult for data journalists – paper or pdf, and looking at it the best you might get is text.

    If I went round the office now I could probably get a fairly complete set of sentencing for Cardiff Magistrates but it is in the worst pdf format I have ever seen (you can’t even copy and paste it in a coherent manner to write a nib) so extracting it would be hard work. Might have to try office sourcing the BTJs by getting everyone to also add the info to a table (not sure I’d be too popular)

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Thanks Claire – trying to organise some way of shedding a light on this in a coordinated way.

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  8. JTownend

    It’s good to see the courts data issue raised here. My interest is in civil courts data and I’ve written about this on Meeja Law (http://meejalaw.com) and recently for the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/aug/08/injunctions-court-data-law-media

    I plan to make a submission to the Open Data consultation. I’ve set up a Google group here for ‘digital open justice’ if anyone would like to join and discuss the issues further: https://groups.google.com/group/digital-open-justice

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Thanks – have applied to join the group.

      Meanwhile a contact in the police suggests that ACPO are the best bet for riot-specific data, rather than the Home Office.

      Have also tracked down 2 guidance documents which may be useful to quote, at http://www.unlock.org.uk/xoffenders.aspx?sid=240 (also includes stuff on reporting convictions in the media)

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  11. JTownend

    Thanks Paul.

    Yesterday I stumbled across this FoI (the MoJ is now publishing more responses on its site) about accessing Magistrate court listings


    It includes a link to this doc http://www.societyofeditors.co.uk/userfiles/file/Press%20Protocol%20for%20E%20News(2).doc
    which contains detail about the protocol for sharing court registers and court lists with local newspapers – as agreed between HMCS (as it was then; now HMCTS), the Society of Editors and Newspaper Society

    HMCS agrees to send listings by email or provide a hard copy (not disc) to journalists. It includes, among others, these two points:

    HMCS will:

    “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, together with suitable ID. The package must be signed for and a record kept of the collection.)”

    “reserve the right to refuse to disclose data if there is a concern about how that information will be used (e.g. sold to a third party, used to create internet lists of sex offenders etc)”

    On the other hand, newspapers must, among other points:

    “destroy the data supplied within 6 months or other appropriate longer period, if recommended by their legal advisers or insurers. (Although they can retain details of individual cases for journalistic purposes).”

    “shred printed copies of registers.”

    “not pass the information contained in court registers to third parties (i.e. outside the media and its legal advisers, for reasons unconnected with journalism).”

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Really useful – thanks. The need for accreditation is notable – would they turn down a blogging lawyer without a press card?
      Personal data seems to be at the heart of this, and yet the names are the least important – surely they could publish depersonalised data and make it available for longer?

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  16. Egrommet

    A really good place to have a look at the general rules – open data is a long way off yet – is the new Criminal Procedure Rules (2011), which make for a very interesting read.

    Rule 16 deals with restrictions, and is well worth any blogger, hyperlocal or journalists having a read.

    The key thing is that there is an explicit presumption in favour of open justice which may play well for those who want to not only record (Rule 16 Section 3) but this may also eventually form part of the leverage required to push the data card.


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