Michael CrossEditorTuesday 12 September 2017

Digital open justice could build racial trust

Wide ranging report into minority ethnic groups and justice system urges online transparency

Campaigns for more digitally-enabled openness in the criminal justice system have received backing from an unexpected but highly influential source. In his widely awaited report into racial disparities in the courts and prisons, Labour MP David Lammy recommends a substantial increase in the publication of data such as judges’ explanations of their sentences - as well as online feedback of how judges conduct cases.

Lammy was commissioned by former prime minister David Cameron to report on glaring disparities between people of different races in the way they are treated by the justice system, from arrest to trial to the sentences they serve. For example black men are more than three times more likely than white men to be arrested, while more than 40% of youth prisoners are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Lack of trust

While the reasons for the disparity are complex and often not easy to address, Lammy highlights the theme of lack of trust in the system among people of black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. “The criminal justice system has a trust deficit with the BAME population born in England and Wales, many of whom lack their parents’ reverence for our legal system,” he reports.

This has several damaging consequences. For example, people classified as BAME are less likely than whites to plead guilty at an early stage when they are charged with a crime while being more likely to change their plea when they see the weight of evidence against them. This means they are more likely to receive heavier sentences - which in turn builds perceptions that black people are treated worse, reinforcing the cycle of distrust.

Key data gaps

Lammy recommends tackling the problem by addressing “key data gaps”. Proposals include:

  •  Publishing data on magistrates’ court pleas and remand decisions. “This should be part of a more detailed examination of magistrates’ verdicts, with a particular focus on those affecting BAME women [who are far more likely than whites to be given custodial sentences],” he said.

  • “The Open Justice initiative should be extended and updated so that it is possible to view sentences for individual offences at individual courts, broken down by demographic characteristics, including gender and ethnicity.

  • As part of the government’s £1 billion court modernisation programme, all sentencing remarks in the Crown court should be published in audio and/or written form. “This would build trust by making justice more transparent and comprehensible for victims, witnesses and offenders.”

  • The judiciary should work with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to establish a system of online feedback on how judges conduct cases. “This information, gathered from different perspectives, including court staff, lawyers, jurors, victims and defendants, could be used by the judiciary to support the professional development of judges in the future, including in performance appraisals for those judges that have them.”

These ideas are likely to gain traction because (unlike some of Lammy’s other proposals) they do not involve new up-front costs. Money for digitisation of the criminal justice system has already been earmarked. “At a time when over £700 million has been allocated for the full digitisation of the courts through the court modernisation programme, publishing sentencing remarks would be an important step to a more comprehensible and trusted system,” Lammy notes.

The snag is that Lammy’s transparency proposals will require enthusiastic support from judges, currently in a state of cold war with the government over issues ranging from legal aid cuts to the tabloid press to the judicial pension scheme. But the consensus throughout the system that glaring discrepancies in experiences must be addressed will build pressure for something to be done.