2021vi23, Wednesday: “Important.”

Qualified good news about open justice – but with a significant sting in the tail. And a fascinating update on corruption definitions from an old friend.

Short thought: For anyone relatively new to the law (by which I mean the past half-dozen years or so) the idea of a life before BAILII is just incomprehensible. 

Seriously? No public access to judgments? Court decisions – which in our common law world define much of the law, and are absolutely critical to anyone resorting to it – only available at vast cost, or to the tiny minority of practitioners? Madness. Worse; injustice. 

(A good description of why this matters is in the case of R (Unison) v the Lord Chancellor. I’ll take any excuse to point to paras 65-73 because it’s one of the paradigm examples of judicial disdain, cloaked in perfect and elegant courtesy. In this case, the Supreme Court saying to the government minister in charge of the legal system: just sit down and shut up, while we explain your job to you. With pictures. And short, easy words. But the key paras for this purpose are 69-70, where the critical role of case law in our common law system is concisely and superbly outlined. With a sarcastic sting in the tail.)

So the fact that we have this resource, with vast numbers (if by no means all) of judgments from the Tribunals, via the High Court and Court of Appeal, to the Supreme Court, freely available, and searchable, is not just desirable. It’s necessary.

Having “grown up” in the law with BAILII, I find the existence in the US of PACER both staggering and an outrage. A public database of federal court decisions – great. But not only is it charged for – but the charge is $0.10 a page! As any trial lawyer will tell you, researching a case often means looking at loads of authorities, many of which will prove ultimately to be useless or even counter-productive. Most are dozens of pages long. Some are hundreds. This is just as much an obstruction of justice as were the Employment Tribunal fees that the Unison case ultimately, and rightly, defeated.

All this said, it’s worth remembering that BAILII isn’t a public enterprise. It gets about a quarter of its £230,000-odd budget from the Ministry of Justice, but it’s a charity.

Some may see this as an anomaly. And change is on the way. The MoJ has just this week announced that the National Archives will from next year host an openly-available archive of “important” court and tribunal judgments, including “Judicial Review rulings, European case law, commercial judgments and many more cases of legal significance from the High Court, Upper Tier Tribunal, and the Court of Appeal”.

I’m not going to be a curmudgeon about this – at least, not immediately. This is an advance. It’s absolutely worth having. And putting it in the hands of the National Archives, rather than the MoJ, is the right move.

But there is a problem. The words “important” and “of legal significance” do a lot of heavy lifting. Again, any trial lawyer will tell you that it’s not always the obvious cases that are worth having. Sometimes, the “legal significance” won’t emerge for some time, till various authorities and competing bits of jurisprudence settle out over time. This could leave huge gaps. And I want to know: who gets to decide what’s “important”? 

I’m not alone in this. Smarter and better minds – such as Paul McGrath and Natalie Byrom – have beaten me to it.

The counter to which could be: BAILII will still be there. Well, yes… but as part of this new deal, the MoJ will stop its funding to BAILII from next year. That’s a huge slice of budget. I’m really worried about its future. And its loss would be a loss to us all.


Someone is right on the internet: As anyone foolish enough to expose their thinking online (but not irretrievably arrogant) will tell you, one of the greatest joys of this game is when something you write prompts someone smart to help you expand your mind.

Tristram Hicks, former Detective Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, has been kind enough to do that. Tristram, whom I’ve known on and off for a good long while, specialised during his policing career in economic crime: fraud, asset recovery, money laundering – and corruption. 

He’s reminded me firstly that I got the standard corruption definition wrong in my piece on Monday. I should have said: “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. That’s “private”, not “personal” as I had it. 

In the context in which I used it, I’m not sure there’s a great difference; “private” in the sense of “for the sake of the organisation itself, not for the sake of its mission” works better than my explanation, but perhaps not materially.

But Tristram points me to a piece he wrote for Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, which I commend to any reader of these pages as an excellent use of 10 minutes of their time. (It’s not long – less than 10 sides of A4.) Entitled “Why are there so few domestic corruption cases in the UK?”, it explores some of the familiar (no resources; no incentives; no measures) reasons why domestic corruption goes largely uninvestigated, unprotected and thus unpunished – but also some more unfamiliar ones. 

(He doesn’t mention my particularly caustic and cynical take: that successive governments are so wedded to the UK’s image as a “clean” place that except in certain specific locations, such as prisons and border control, there’s simply no incentive to lift the rocks and look underneath. In case we find anything…)

But alongside this, Tristram also points out that my mistaken definition is the one the Government adopted for its 2017-22 Anti-Corruption Strategy, although it wrongly attributed its wording to Transparency International (the source of the “private gain” one). And then it added a further gloss: the corruption, by the Government’s definition, had to “benefit a third party – an individual, business or other organisation”. Like Tristram, I don’t believe this is right. At its most basic level, the additional condition might be interpreted as ruling out people within the organisation in question – particularly those running it, whose motives might well be mixed up with or attributed to the organisation itself. And even if that’s not the case, this definition carefully exempts the kind of “institutional corruption” we were discussing on Monday.

Not good enough. We’re not as clean as we think we are. Narrowing the definitions to exclude some of the ways in which that manifests itself only makes things worse. Thanks, but no.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

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