New home for judgments

National Archives to house free public database next year

The government is to establish a free, comprehensive database of all judgments delivered in England and Wales.

In an announcement this morning, the government promised a website hosting thousands of court judgments, saving time and money for lawyers, judges, academics, journalists, students and members of the public who require them for case preparation or research purposes.

The new database will be run by the National Archives, which already publishes legislation dating back to 1267. It will open next April.

As the official archive and publisher for the UK Government, the National Archives was chosen because of its long-standing expertise in storing and publishing information securely.

Lawyers currently pay providers such as Westlaw UK and the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting, which analyse and annotate judgments delivered by courts and tribunals.

But smaller firms and not-for-profit organisations rely on BAILII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute. It has a tiny staff and currently receives nearly a quarter of its £230,000 annual budget from the Ministry of Justice.

BAILLI misses some extempore (oral) judgments, particularly those delivered in the criminal division of the Court of Appeal. It does not carry sentencing remarks, although some judges send these for publication on the judiciary website.

The lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, said:

Ensuring court judgments are easily accessible is central to the rule of law and the principle of open justice.

Having used BAILII myself as a criminal barrister, I am extremely grateful for the work they have done over the years to make judgments available to the public.

This new service will ensure they remain accessible to anyone who needs them, under safe and secure arrangements with the National Archives.

In October 2019, the Ministry of Justice published a report on access to justice by Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research at the Legal Education Foundation. In her recommendations, Byrom said the Ministry of Justice should arrange for free and comprehensive access to judgments in a structured, machine-readable format.

Court users told her that the failure to provide this service created barriers to entry for law-tech start-ups. International pioneers of online dispute resolution services said that without free access to case law and authoritative legal commentary it was unreasonable to expect litigants-in-person to present cases in courts or tribunals.

This morning, Byrom said:

Providing complete access to judgments is a central aspect of the rule of law, allowing individuals to understand their legal position and initiate or defend legal claims. A complete, agreed record is also vital in supporting research that informs the development of public policy and in the delivery of that policy, including encouraging uptake of reformed services.

We urge the government to ensure this transfer will lead to comprehensive coverage of judgments, available in one single place for the purposes of research and ease of access. There is still more to be done, including reducing the costs of accessing transcripts for those that need them and taking steps towards the publication of sentencing remarks for a holistic understanding of judges’ decisions.

However, we strongly commend this decision as the first step towards creating a fairer and more transparent system and supporting evidence-led reform.

BAILII also welcomed the new rule for the National Archives. Sir Ross Cranston, the former MP and former High Court judge who chairs BAILII’s trustees, said:

These changes in no way diminish BAILII’s role in providing free access to the judgments of the courts and tribunals of the UK, Ireland and other common law jurisdictions. The continued generosity of our donors and supporters will allow us to expand our offering not only to those throughout the UK and Ireland, but also internationally where our law is used and valued.

The Ministry of Justice will stop funding BAILII next April. But the charity said it would continue to provide the most comprehensive single source of free legal information, not just for England and Wales but also for Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and other important common law jurisdictions.

It said it would be working with the Legal Education Foundation to support the National Archives in developing its new services and to develop BAILII’s own broader service.

Matthew Smerdon, chief executive of the Legal Education Foundation, said:

BAILII has played a key role in the international movement calling for free access to law as means to promote justice and rule of law. In that context, the Legal Education Foundation welcomes the announcement of the new role of the National Archives as making a positive contribution to this goal and to helping people to understand and use the law.

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