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Court Proceedings: Written Transcripts

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that there is open justice, and in particular open access to transcripts of proceedings in open court, in the light of the availability of digital technology.

My Lords, we recognise the importance of a transparent and open justice system. Transcripts of proceedings in open court are available on request, although safeguards are in place to protect vulnerable parties. Our reforms to courts and tribunals will make much better use of digital technology to ensure a more efficient, proportionate and accessible system for all.

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s Answer, but on 27 April he stated that Her Majesty’s Government would make court proceedings more accessible and make it easier for the public to understand court proceedings. In April this year, I made a request via the Library for the sentencing remarks in a hearing in open court, and the cost per hour turned out to be £144 plus VAT. Will my noble friend undertake not only to use digital technology but to ensure that the Ministry of Justice gets value for money and that our courts are accessible? On investigation, it seems that numerous companies are operating to record proceedings in numerous parts of the country, so there also seems to be scope for economies of scale in this area.

I am grateful to my noble friend. She is quite right: she drew the ministry’s attention to her difficulties. There are a number of contracts in existence, and some of them have been extended at various times. The ministry is currently progressing a re-procurement of all court and tribunal transcription services, and new contracts are anticipated by the end of 2016. The cost of transcripts depends on the length of the hearing. There is a difference between sentencing remarks, by which we mean the remarks accompanying the judge actually passing sentence, and the sentencing hearing, which can be very much longer and cost something like £800 or £900 per day in the Crown Court and rather more in the High Court. If you can refine your search, it tends to be very much cheaper.

My Lords, will the Minister guarantee that in cases where interpreters are required in courts, the courts will continue to rely on human beings, not the idiosyncrasies of Google Translate, which has been relied on in some cases?

My Lords, any member of the public can walk into court to hear proceedings being conducted. That is at the heart of open justice. I have long believed that allowing proceedings to be televised is the natural extension of that principle—subject of course to safeguards, in particular for witnesses. Does the Minister agree that the limited televising of proceedings to date has been a success and should be further extended?

There has been some televising of proceedings. The Supreme Court, for example, even has its own website. I do not think it is doing very well in the ratings war, but it provides accessible opportunities to see what goes on the courts. The Court of Appeal Criminal Division is also now available to the public, and a pilot is proceeding on the Crown Court and sentencing remarks. While of course the Government are very much in favour of open justice, we have to proceed carefully in this area, perhaps because of the risk of people being diverted in the way they perform in court, whether they be witnesses or even—dare I say?—lawyers thinking about how they will be perceived.

An accurate transcript involves expense, and expense is incurred by those who provide an accurate—and it must be absolutely accurate—transcript. A transcript is available, but it is not automatically available. It requires transcription from a recording. Depending on how quickly you need it and how much you need, it will be more expensive.

My Lords, does not a hard-copy record of all proceedings have to reside in the court? If that is the case, why is it so expensive to print another copy, as is done with Hansard?

There is not, in fact, a printed record of proceedings. There is a recording, which is then transcribed. It is the cost of transcription that we are concerned with.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that not everybody has access to digital technology? What steps are they taking to deal with that aspect of the matter? Is not the more important question that of access to justice generally, with the increasing number of unrepresented parties appearing in courts making for delays in the system and, apparently, an increasing reliance on McKenzie friends? Do the Government really think that is the way to promote access to justice?

That is rather outside the Question, but it is none the less an important point. On accessibility, if there is a transcript and, in the judge’s view, it is appropriate, it can be obtained at public expense. In certain circumstances, there can even be legal aid to obtain a transcript. It is most important that judges and, more importantly, litigants are given assistance. We still have a system of legal aid. McKenzie friends are somewhat controversial, but they can, in appropriate circumstances, provide great help to litigants and the court.

My Lords, I hope the Minister will forgive me if I have misunderstood what he said, but in response to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, he said that a recording is made and then a transcript. If a transcript has to be made in any event in order for court records to be complete, surely it must be possible for copies of that transcript also to be made available, or have I failed to understand the process?

I am sure the lack of clarity was mine. There is a recording in courts of record, as defined by statue, which include Crown Courts and the High Court, but not, for example, magistrates’ courts, whose proceedings are not automatically transcribed. There will not automatically be a transcript, although basic information about a case can be obtained by anybody.

Will the Minister tell me the position when documents go missing? I am referring not only to court proceedings but to care home questionnaires and decisions where records made by practitioners are suddenly no longer available? Is there not some way of ensuring that they are kept on public record?

All care homes should keep relevant documents, and if there is a dispute involving the care home it has an obligation to disclose all relevant documents. Where the care home is run by the state, the state has such an obligation. Even it is not run by the state, I would expect all relevant documentation to be available.