More legal judgments should be posted online

Adam Wagner, a barrister and former colleague of Mr Justice Foskett, applauds the judge’s decision to publish his rulings in the Sharon Shoesmith case online.

The case was always likely to be full of controversy and complexity as well as salacious detail. This is not in itself remarkable: public law is often the cutting edge of social and political issues. What is unusual is the manner in which Mr Justice Foskett approached his task by looking outwards to the general public, as well as inwards to the legal system.

At every stage of this case, barristers’ submissions, judge’s remarks and a full summary of the 176-page judgment have been made available through the judiciary’s new website.

As Mr Wagner says, this is an encouraging development and it would be good to see more legal judgments posted online. However, I think he is being a bit optimistic here:

A more open judicial system would help the press, prevent hasty reporting errors spreading via the internet, and improve access to justice for the general public…

The judgment from the original hearing on 23 April, in which the judge expressed his unease about Sharon Shoesmith’s dismissal, was published online too. It didn’t stop the Sun from printing this twisted spin on his ruling or a whole host of mini-me bloggers from simply regurgitating what they had read in the tabloids.

Many people had already made up their minds about Sharon Shoesmith and they filtered out anything that contradicted their opinions – even the comments of an eminent judge.

Overall, though, I agree with Adam Wagner. Publishing online judgments is a positive step. It allows members of the public to read the reasons behind legal decisions and make up their own minds. Most importantly, it enables people to see through the distortion and truth-bending that passes for reporting in some of our newspapers.

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5 Responses to More legal judgments should be posted online

  1. Pingback: More legal judgments should be posted online - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. In employment law, almost all appellate level judgments are online via the EAT website or the BAILII website. As you say, though, that doesn’t mean that people will read them They are often a bit long and complicated (and so they should be!) and journalists on a tight deadline aren’t going to wade though the detail and weigh it up before filing a report.

    Also there is inevitably a delay. The judge may announce a decision giving a short oral judgment which will be written up later. The press will report based on what the parties say on the steps of the court afterwards, and will not wait until the judgment is actually published.

    I always work on the basis that everything the press say about a court case is basically wrong. Its a rule of thumb that serves me well.

  3. Rick says:

    Thanks Darren, I keep meaning to add links in the sidebar to those sites.

    A few journalists seem to be able to digest the essence of the judgments but, as you say, most don’t. There are also some who choose not to. They have their stories written beforehand and skim-read the report, extracting the bits that support their stance and binning all the rest.

  4. I see a connection here (as we all do, of course) with the move also towards publishing scientific data as it is produced. For a variety of reasons many of the pros don’t feel comfortable, but to a degree it’s going to happen anyway.

    And yes, it’s clearly the case that bloggers of a certain disposition will nonetheless post ridiculous and sometimes really nasty stuff – but hopefully over time they will find those who make the effort to check will begin to dismiss and maybe ridicule what’s being wrongly claimed.

    It’s all about establishing who has authority in what they write, and who really doesn’t need to be taken notice of.

    The only big snag here, as I see it, is that serious professional practitioners and writers are generally not inclinded to join in what they see as silly debate, so they let ridiculous ideas take centre stage without an adequate challenge; think ‘climate change’…..

    The pros are going to have to learn not to stand back / get on their high horses / ignore the rest of the human race, if they want serious ideas and evidence to be taken seriously. Some professionals do this already, but by no means enough.

    Most of the time, the state (i.e. we, the people) pay for the work of lawyers, scientists and so forth. I hope these professionals will start to acknolwledge that part of their obligation back to us is to explain properly, as in the example above, what they are doing on our behalf.

  5. roym says:

    On the issue of open access for science, moves are afoot.

    though i suspect that major publishers and instituitional managers (i.e. universities) still need prodding along

    I must say i practically leapt onto this link today because this is something i have been wondering about for some time. I currently work in the legal sector and am amazed by how “closed shop” it seems. perhaps certain judgements could also bbe published in a de-jargonised form? though maybe that is what specialised journalists are for? but then we come back to newsroom cost cutting etc? but surely society must draw a line somewhere, otherwise we’re going to be continually stuck in this cycle of debasement of fact. another reason for this sort of issue becoming de-rigueur is the seemingly endless trope of being too soft on criminals. where i live, the local message board is often full of vitriol towards some magistrate or judge on a particular case but without even knowing a) who they are, and b) what they’ve said. I have tried looking, but i’d appreciate a nod in the right direction.

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