Open Court: Trial documents are now accessible to the public

August 4, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

A Supreme Court verdict has ruled that documents used in trials can be accessed by the public.

What does this mean?

Lady Hale, when giving the judgment, outlined that the guiding principle is that justice is to be done in the open. The decision essentially means that third parties are able to access all documents that have been used during a trial, at any level Court or Tribunal.

This decision has come as a result of The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK bringing an application to access documents used in trials regarding their asbestos exposure. They made the application under the Civil Procedure Rules where a non-party to litigation could obtain records from the Court which were not public.

However, access to documents will not be given arbitrarily. Those who wish to access any documents must give a reason as to why they wish to see them and why their access will advance the ‘open justice’ principle. It is then up to the Court to decide whether granting access is more beneficial to the ‘open justice’ principle, or could be harmful.

What's the big picture effect?

The ruling comes as a huge boost to the key principle of open justice. Lady Hale recognised that, not only can an individual seek access to documents,but media outlets may also acquire court documents provided they satisfy the advancement of ‘open justice’ threshold. It is likely that media outlets will pass this test as they could claim there is sufficient public interest; allowing a wider audience, namely their readers, to see the documents is clearly part of open justice. In this way, the Supreme Court ruling could be beneficial in allowing the public to find out about a variety of cases in Court whilst referring to reliable documents. This could be useful for those wishing to find out more about a case, for those who potentially want to bring a similar case forward themselves, and more generally those who have an interest in seeing how the justice system works.

However, this new access could also be disadvantageous. Arguably, there could be an issue with privacy, namely that big media companies may find it easier to access people’s private documents. Further, it could encourage ‘trial by media’, where the public treat an individual according to personal opinions and beliefs, based on select documents, even if the individual does not end up being convicted. This may cause heavy reputational damage to those who go to court but are later acquitted, damage which would be intensified if the person is a public figure. In such scenarios, the Court would most definitely have to balance the pros and cons of granting access.

Do you think the general public and media outlets should be able to access court documents easily? Or, do you think they should remain between the disputing parties?

Report written by Harina Chandhok

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