TLEF funded research reveals urgent need for public consultation and evidence to support safe and effective justice data sharing

TLEF funded research reveals urgent need for public consultation and evidence to support safe and effective justice data sharing

Report by Dr. Judith Townend and Dr. Cassandra Wiener explores international approaches to defining, managing, and sharing justice system data and considers the impact of these approaches on judicial independence, innovation, and public understanding of and confidence in the justice system.

The grant-giving charity The Legal Education Foundation has today published research that analyses the way in which ‘justice system data’- data generated by the operation of the courts and tribunals – is managed and shared in three countries: Australia, Canada, and Ireland. The research: “Justice system data: A comparative study” was commissioned to inform the development of policy and practice in England and Wales and support the newly created HMCTS Senior Data Governance Panel. Findings from the research reveal critical gaps in the evidence needed to develop data-sharing practices that enhance trust in and access to the justice system.

Sharing data generated by the operation of the courts and tribunals can play a critical role in delivering open justice, improving public understanding, supporting evidence-based policy making and catalysing new legal service models. The digitisation of justice systems in England and Wales and worldwide provides the catalyst and infrastructure to fundamentally rethink the way data about the justice system is collected, stored, and shared. It also forces us to confront the tensions between open justice and privacy, which have historically been managed by the effort and expense involved in accessing information from paper- based systems.  We commissioned Dr Townend to help us understand what England and Wales might learn from data sharing practices in other common-law jurisdictions

Dr. Natalie Byrom, Director of Research

The research was conducted from May-August 2020 via literature review and interviews with 40 key individuals across the jurisdictions. Interviewees came from a range of different professional backgrounds, including academia, court services, legal technology, and access to justice organisations. The literature review included academic and policy materials as well as court service and legal information websites. The authors considered both higher and lower courts in regional and federal jurisdictions and examined the principles and practices of existing systems.

Contemporary justice systems are complex and messy as a result of anachronistic structures and rules that have evolved since the medieval period. Inevitably, this means ‘justice system data’ – that is the information generated by the process of justice – is equally complex and messy, with a hybrid of policies and laws governing its collection, storage and dissemination. Across the three jurisdictions, we found a lacuna in terms of policies for access to justice system data, and a complex web of legal and ethical arrangements between a variety of justice system actors.

Dr. Judith Townend, report author 

The research found that whilst there is a common understanding across the jurisdictions of the nature and importance of justice system data, policies and processes for managing and sharing data have not been purposively designed. In opening up justice data, challenges and tensions across the jurisdictions were also exposed: the impact of legacy practices; the under-investment in and a decentralised approach to technological reform; a data deficit for user and case experience; a tension between privacy and transparency in the provision of court records containing personal data; and a lack of accountability measures to ensure the effective management of justice system data.

There is a need for clear, public policies setting out the differing roles of the executive, court service, judiciary and third-party providers in managing justice system data. These policies should include robust accountability mechanisms, including appropriate routes of application and appeal for accessing justice data that is not already in the public domain. Sustained and meaningful engagement with court-users and the public in developing these processes is required

Dr. Judith Townend, report author

The findings and their implications will be discussed at a free public launch event today chaired by Joshua Rozenberg QC. Registration is still open and tickets can be accessed here.

Read the report

Copies of “Justice system data: a comparative study” can be accessed here

A summary of the key findings and recommendations can be accessed here

Report author Dr. Judith Townend has written a guest blog for TLEF launching the research which can be accessed here.

All documents and accompanying materials, including a supporting spreadsheet and reference library can be accessed from the report page here. 

For more information contact TLEF Director of Research Dr. Natalie Byrom: natalie.byrom@theLEF.org

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