Meet the book author – Observing Justice: Digital Transparency, Openness and Accountability in Criminal Courts

Judith Townend and Lucy Welsh 

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Judith Townend and Lucy Welsh, whose new book Observing Justice: Digital Transparency, Openness and Accountability in Criminal Courts was published in 2023 with Bristol University Press.

What is the book about? 

Essentially, how one observes the process of criminal justice in the courts, and holds the justice system to account, by relying on the English common law principle of open justice. 

We consider in the four main chapters of the book: the history of accountability in the criminal courts; technological and data developments; the way courts have been reported by the media and other observers; and how transparency mechanisms affect the people involved in court processes, as well as the realisation of rights to access information. 

Ultimately, we draw attention to inconsistencies and failings in the practice of open justice, as well as the frictions around privacy and publicity, and propose a new framework for the design of transparency mechanisms to achieve justice system accountability.  How this should be operationalised in practice remains a work in progress, and we hope the book provokes further exchange of ideas in both academic and legal policy contexts. 

Why did we write it? 

Though there are many things written and spoken about open justice, these accounts often overlook the practical detail of doing open justice – or, indeed, the practical detail of not doing open justice because of technical fails, human error or inadequate systems for accessing information. Further, some accounts pre-date digital developments.  

Also overlooked are what we describe as the ‘human impacts’ of open justice that may arise because of open justice practices: privacy intrusion and stigmatisation, for example.  Some of these have been covered in wider criminological literature but are often neglected in the context of research and policy work on open justice.   

One of us (Judith) had a longstanding interest in these gaps and unresolved frictions, based on her earlier career in journalism and involvement in various civil society initiatives on justice transparency, spanning civil, criminal and family justice. 

When she was approached by Bristol University Press to develop a policy-relevant book proposal on this theme, she knew she needed to narrow the focus and therefore should work with a specialist in one area of the court estate. 

Lucy was an obvious collaborator, based on our conversations over the years and mutual enthusiasm for socio-legal approaches to courts research. Lucy’s background is as a criminal solicitor and she is a specialist in the work of the Magistrates’ court. We decided, therefore, to focus on the lower criminal courts, though we hope the book has broader relevance too. The BUP Law, Society, Policy series feels the perfect home for it. 

How did we go about doing this research?

Initially, our plan was to replicate a study conducted in Bristol led by Chamberlain et al and a team of students in 2018, to see how our results compared. We couldn’t do this in exactly the same way for a few reasons: we had to work around the time availability of our criminal justice law clinic students, and then, just as we started the fieldwork in spring 2020, COVID-19 hit. So, in the end, our fieldwork was of a different nature, but still useful to us: it revealed, for example, the impossibility of obtaining basic information from the Magistrates’ court during the period of restricted public access. We draw on this, but also other empirical and evaluative studies, in the book. 

We had never formally collaborated before, but we found our way as we went: dividing up the work, reviewing each other’s chapters before pulling it all together, and revising it again based on external reviews and colleagues’ feedback. Some of the work took place in writing sessions in our School; it was nice to be writing in the same physical space and discuss the development of the book with our colleagues in coffee breaks. 

We have since presented the work at the Annual Meeting of the Research Committee on Sociology of Law at Lund University in 2023 and will draw on it again at the SLSA annual conference in Portsmouth, as well as at panel events at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and University of Sussex in 2024, involving some of the people we cite in the book.  

Lucy is now busy with a Nuffield Foundation funded project on Applicants’ Experiences of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and Judith is currently working on papers on different if related topics, but we hope to find a way to continue the work in coming years. 

Judith Townend is Reader in Digital Society and Justice and Lucy Welsh is Reader in Criminal Justice, both based at the University of Sussex. Anyone interested in court observation from an academic or civil society perspective might consider following – or joining – the Courts and Tribunals Observers’ Network. More information: http://courtobservers.org (contact: judith.townend@sussex.ac.uk). More about Judith and Lucy’s work here and here.