Posts Tagged ‘Law Section’

Freedom – only if we can get the information

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Freedom – only if we can get the information
The Times, Law, February 06, 2007
By Heather Brooke

Two years on and the Freedom of Information Act has been enough of a success to warrant its possible demise.

While it was always naive to think that politicians would welcome open government, recent proposals have surprised even sceptics. Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has described the Government as “taking a scythe to its own Act”.

The proposals put forward by the Department for Constitutional Affairs blithely ignore the recommendations of its parliamentary select committee that endemic delay and poor enforcement are endangering the law’s effectiveness. Instead, the Government held secret meetings and hired a private consultancy headed by Sir Andrew Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, to make the case that the Freedom of Information Act is too expensive.

While these actions are bad news for democracy, they do at least show that the law was proving to be effective.

One of the strongest benefits of freedom of information (FoI) is that it has replaced propaganda and polemic with empirical evidence. Citizens now have a more factual and detailed understanding of problems facing local schools, councils, the criminal justice system, the NHS and, of course, central government. We know, despite constant rhetoric that the NHS is “better than ever”, that at least 13 NHS trusts are technically bankrupt, with no chance of meeting a legal obligation to balance their books. We know that prosecution rates vary across Britain in what amounts to a postcode lottery of justice, and that police increasingly use cautions for serious crimes such as rape and burglary.

We know the number of school pupils expelled for drugs and violence, how many of those on probation have committed violent crimes, which restaurants are failing their hygiene inspections and the details of many private finance contracts signed by public authorities. We have a list of post offices scheduled for closure, the surgery success rates of some surgeons and know that hospitals in England are each charging patients up to £1.5 million a year for parking.

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Costly Crown Copyright

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

Why we must cut the costly Crown copyright
The Times Law section, 27 September 2005
By Heather Brooke

The Green Party called for the repeal of Crown Copyright at its recent party conference, the latest in a growing campaign to abolish restrictive copyrights on public sector information and encourage greater re-use by citizens and business.

In an unusual alliance, pro-democracy advocates and big business want an end to the complex copyright system in which public authorities up and down the country are restricting access to everything from staff directories and restaurant inspections to tidal timetables. Even plans to create a national database of postal addresses have stumbled because the various public bodies involved can’t agree who owns the copyright to postal addresses! “In the UK, excessive intellectual property rights prevent access to and dissemination of vast areas of knowledge,” says Matt Wootton, of the Green Party. “Our policy seeks to abolish Crown and other types of restrictive copyright that restricts most material originated by ministers and civil servants, which has been paid for by the UK taxpayer.”
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Article: Prohibitions on Disclosure

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

The four hundred laws that shackle your right to know
The Times Law section, May 24, 2005
By Heather Brooke

For many people the Freedom of Information Act is not working

In 1987, 31 people died in the King’s Cross Tube station fire. The Fennell Report into the disaster found that many of the dangers had been identified in reports by the fire brigade, police and Railway Fire Prevention and Fire Safety Standards Committee. Yet there was one group of people who were kept in the dark about the danger: the Tube-travelling public.

Almost 20 years have passed and the public are still being denied access to these reports, despite the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. The secrecy is because of an obscure law – Section 21 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 – that makes disclosure to the public a criminal offence.

This law is exactly the kind that must be reviewed under the terms of the Act, but the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the government department in charge of implementing the Act, did not even discover the prohibition until last year. And it is running years behind schedule to make these laws compliant with the Act. So far only eight out of nearly 500 prohibitions have been changed or repealed.

Although the Freedom of Information law was passed in 2000, the first Parliamentary Order was made in November 2004, affecting just eight pieces of legislation, and came into force on January 1 this year. A second order to address the remaining 400-plus laws should have been published by January 1, but was deferred to March, then April, and has now been delayed indefinitely.

This is a cause for concern because until these laws are amended, they trump the Freedom of Information law, leaving many citizens with no more rights to information than they had before. Fire inspection reports are the most sought after.
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FOI package in Times law section

Tuesday, January 11th, 2005

Today’s Times law section has a number of FOI-related articles.

Is this new freedom an empty gesture?

New openness regime will keep many lawyers in work

Long-held business secrets are most at risk
This piece discusses the impact of FOIA on companies. I do take issue with this statement: So rather than being a sign of a mature democracy treating its citizens with civilised respect, the Act has the potential for blowing open to public gaze matters of commercial sensitivity. In fact, we are talking about commercial areas where public money is at stake: why shouldn’t the public have a right to examine how it is being spent?

Lawyers find the MoD a formidable adversary
A culture of secrecy is frustrating litigation over the deaths of young soldiers.

Can you keep a secret – in open court?

Wednesday, December 1st, 2004

The Times
Law section: November 30, 2004

How can evidence be heard but not read? Heather Brooke on the odd rules of evidence highlighted by a royal memo

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Article: Switch on to the principle of open justice

Tuesday, November 16th, 2004

The Times
Law section: November 16, 2004
by Heather Brooke

The American experience shows that televising court proceedings does a lot more good than harm

The pilot scheme in which TV companies will from today be allowed to film, but not broadcast, proceedings in the Court of Appeal comes decades after similar steps were taken in America, Australia and other countries. Why has it taken so long for Britain to follow suit? The reasons have more to do with fear than facts.

I have covered trials as a newspaper reporter in South Carolina and although I accept that the presence of recording devices can affect the quality of evidence and witness testimony it is in exactly the opposite way claimed by many British people. The evidence the State brings forth is much stronger because prosecutors know they face tough scrutiny, and witnesses behave better because they know more people are watching them.

The fears raised by British opponents of televised court proceedings are not supported by the solid empirical evidence that has been collected in the US since cameras were introduced into courtrooms in the 1950s. These studies show that cameras have little effect on the outcome of a trial. Thousands of televised trials are going on every day in America. Footage from these cases provides the public with a factual record of the way in which the judicial system works. Inefficiencies or prejudices are quickly exposed and this transparency has led to a judiciary that better reflects those whom it judges.

Repeatedly, I have seen the trial of O.J. Simpson used in this country as an example of the danger inherent in filming court cases. The O.J. Simpson case may have been “entertainment” for many, but it also educated people about what went on in court. If lawyers decide to behave more as celebrities than we think is proper, the fault lies with the judge for not keeping control of his courtroom, not with the presence of cameras. Grandstanding is just as likely outside the courtroom if lawyers or witnesses desire a public profile.

The lengthy, detailed proceedings that take place inside court are an excellent antidote to this kind of hype. In the Soham murder trial there was no objective record accessible to interested members of the public. Instead they had to rely solely on the sensationalised highlights picked by the media. An opportunity to show the British public how the judicial system works should not be discarded so easily.

And isn’t it ironic that the British citizen, who is subject to the most extensive CCTV regime in the world, has no right to see filmed images of what takes place in an “open” trial of a “public” courthouse? Either we believe in a system of open justice or not. If we do, then the public’s inability to attend court in person should not limit their democratic right to see justice being done. The most effective method is to broadcast court cases just as we now broadcast debates in Parliament (also once considered unthinkable). Otherwise, we risk allowing the courts to become the preserve of a coterie of lawyers and those involved in a case. If you think this is how it should be, at least drop the pretence of believing in open justice.

Won’t being on TV put off potential witnesses? First, the pilot scheme is in the appeal courts, where there are no witnesses. If eventually it is extended to other courts, we should remember that there are many reasons for witnesses’ reluctance to testify.

Even without cameras, witnesses are rightly subjected to public scrutiny. We must be able to judge whether they are giving us an accurate account of events. A hundred years ago, witnesses were testifying in front of friends, neighbours and relatives. That we live in a very different society today does not mean that witnesses can expect privacy.

Where there are fears for a witness’s safety a judge can already limit public scrutiny. Public distrust of the police and judicial system could already be putting off more potential witnesses than the fear of being on camera. Other factors such as loss of income and time wasted while waiting to be called could also play a part.

The real reason for the reactionary distrust of cameras may have more to do with a deep-seated aversion by the legal profession to being held accountable to the public, and possibly even looking silly. There can be no doubt that cameras will increase the public’s knowledge of the judiciary. Steps can be taken to protect witnesses. Whether or not the judiciary’s image will be enhanced or tarnished depends on what goes on in court, and the stubborn opposition of judges leads one to think that they may be worried that the public will not like what it sees.

If they see a system of inefficiency and poor evidence overseen by old-fashioned, elitist white men then doubtless reputation will be lost. But before faults can be fixed they must first be exposed. One thing is clear: the status quo of inaccessibility will lead only to greater distrust and disillusion, whereas transparency has the potential to engage the public and reform the system.

Heather Brooke is the author of Your Right to Know (Pluto Press), an examination of Britain’s culture of secrecy and guide to using the Freedom of Information Act