The UK is lagging behind other jurisdictions when it comes to transparency, according to the Centre for Criminal Appeals. However, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) very much under public pressure to provide an open and transparent system, a new charter drawn up by the Centre aims to tackle these problems and bring the UK up to the standards of openness enjoyed by some other nations.
According to the Centre for Criminal Appeals, even the poorest of states in the USA currently enjoys a more transparent justice system than that of England and Wales. At the recent launch of the new charter, one of the speakers was attorney Dean Strang who took part in a recent, high-profile US case involving a miscarriage of justice. Specifically, he acted in the appeal of Steven Avery, who was imprisoned in Wisconsin for 18 years for sexual assault but was ultimately found to be innocent. Avery’s case was brought to the attention of the world through popular documentary Making a Murderer. At the event, Strang said that miscarriages of justice like the Avery case would be more difficult to uncover in England and Wales, and cited a lack of transparency as the key reason for this.
The availability of court transcripts was singled out as a key example of the way in which the UK justice system fails to provide the level of openness enjoyed by the USA and many other jurisdictions. In the USA, Strang said, members the media is able to obtain a transcript of a trial for very little expense. Those who hold sufficient stake in a case will automatically be entitled to access transcripts – often at public expense.
In England and Wales, by contrast, it is policy to erase recordings after seven years so unless the case is a recent one transcripts might not be available at all. If the media wishes to request a transcript of a trial and this is still available, then the fees can be much higher than in the US. The cost of obtaining a transcript can be thousands of pounds.
The new charter calls for the following reforms to support transparency in the justice system:
The defence counsel should have access to police documents unless the police are able to provide a valid reason to withhold them.
Access to all court recordings should be available at no cost. The charter also suggests that, if complete recordings are not available, this should constitute grounds for appeal.
Journalists should usually be allowed to visit and speak to prisoners, providing the prisoner in question consents. If such visits are not granted, it should be the responsibility of the governor of the prison to prove this is justified.
Those pursuing an appeal against a conviction should have a controlled level of access to evidence.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission should make materials available to applicants and their representatives.