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HMCTS researches the future of open justice

A new report by Policy Lab into the threats and opportunities of technology is aimed to support new approaches to policy-making

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has released research into the future of “open justice”, which outlines people’s views of technology in the justice system as well as threats and opportunities.

The report was carried out at HMCTS’s request by Policy Lab, a team of designers, social scientists and policy makers led by the Cabinet Office that helps teams across government to develop people-centred approaches to policy making and uses design, data and digital tools to act as a “testing ground for policy innovation across government”.

Resulting from four workshops in London and Manchester with 44 members of the public, the open justice report aimed to investigate what people know and think about new technology and how they feel about potential future scenarios.

“With a better understanding of the types of implications proposals may have, we have begun to explore safeguards which may mitigate some negative experiences,” the report noted.

“We will also use the work to contribute to the wider Open Justice narrative and support strategic policy development on openness,” it added. The Lab hopes to run similar workshops on other topics in future.

The project involved the Policy Lab’s speculative designer, two anthropologists and an illustrator to design, run and analyse the sessions, which operated with the challenge of how to maintain justice in a digital world.

The initial premise of the exercise was broken down into two sub-challenges: how to gain insight on people’s current understanding and perception of open justice. It also questioned how to gain insight on what people think and feel about the future of open justice.

Read more about technology in the justice system

Findings from the sessions included an understanding that people saw the main purposes of open justice as holding people accountable for their actions and deterrence.

Participants also displayed a strong opinion that there is a limit to how open justice should be. Concerns included open justice not becoming a source of entertainment and people’s right to privacy and anonymity in cases, as well as media bias in reporting of justice.

Media is the primary way in which justice was seen to be made open and accessible to people, the report has found, and while there was some knowledge about open court rooms, it was not always known how this worked or what the eligibility was.

Even though participants felt justice is sufficiently open and accessible, there were some barriers that obstruct openness, such as language that excludes the lay audience and lack of time to make use of open courtrooms.

When exploring future scenarios, the Lab found citizens considered case listings to be helpful, but were surprised to find no such listings were available. On the other hand, they felt more advertising of cases could lead to lynch mobs and cases becoming a circus.

There was moderate interest in viewing court cases, the report found, and a “how-to” guide on Gov.uk was considered helpful. But there were also concerns over privacy and the existence of search engines to find cases as impactful on reporting of crime. Such concerns also applied to the potential of live streaming cases over YouTube.

School curriculum

Another provocation was around the potential for open justice to become part of the national school curriculum for citizenship. This was positively received by participants, looking to address a current knowledge gap, despite concerns over the unsuitability of certain information for children.

Additional future scenarios included the possibility of interactive group booths at local courts, which the participants felt useful, but costly. The Lab also discussed the potential for alerting citizens about the outcomes of cases they were following, which raised concerns over data ownership and privacy.

On conclusions of the exercise, The Policy Lab said it was “consistently and strongly felt that open justice must never become entertainment”.

On barriers to accessing the justice system, findings point out that difficulty to access what is going on in courtrooms is “often not thought to be a bad thing”.

In addition, the researchers noted there was a “fairly high level of concern for the privacy of the accused”. The findings also suggest that there is a high level of trust in the justice process, and a very low level of trust in the general public. 

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