Court staff 'do not understand spirit of open justice' as public thrown out of hearings, report reveals

CourtWatch has called for a major overhaul of open justice measures in magistrates court ( Alamy/PA)
CourtWatch has called for a major overhaul of open justice measures in magistrates court ( Alamy/PA)

London’s magistrates court staff have been accused of “not understanding the spirit of open justice” after members of the public say they faced “hostility” at court and were even ejected from hearings.

Dozens of volunteers signed up to the CourtWatch programme last year, to bring a spotlight on criminal cases passing through the magistrates courts.

But those involved say they sometimes felt “intimidated” when quizzed by security guards and staff about why they had attended court, they had to battle through inaccurate public information about hearings, and struggled to see and hear what was unfolding in court.

One of the volunteers told The Standard he was blocked from even entering Stratford magistrates court when he turned up to watch a trial, and claims he was then physically assaulted by security guards who “frog-marched” him from the building.

Others say they were thrown out of a hearing after trying to highlight that those in the public gallery could not hear what was being said in court.

The first of three reports, released on Monday by Transform Justice which established CourtWatch London, has called for a major overhaul of open justice measures in magistrates court, which it says are not set up to encourage public viewing.

“Courtwatchers could not actually hear court proceedings from many of the public galleries,” the report says.

“The response from court staff towards volunteers bringing this to their attention ranged from assistance to puzzlement to hostility. Our efforts to alert senior London court representatives to the issue seemed to go in one ear and out the other.”

The report concluded that some magistrates court staff “did not understand the spirit of open justice”.

Volunteers “found it extremely difficult to find out what they were allowed to do, and what was going on. Information on the court lists was inadequate and often wrong and the correct, up-to-date printed court lists were never made available to the public gallery”.

“This impeded courtwatchers’ ability to understand who was involved in each hearing and what it was about. The inability to hear what was going on, and often poor sightlines, compounded courtwatchers’ confusion.”

Dhillon Shenoy is one of 150 volunteers who have signed up to the CourtWatch project (ES/Kirk)
Dhillon Shenoy is one of 150 volunteers who have signed up to the CourtWatch project (ES/Kirk)

The report has recommended “mystery shoppers” at courts to monitor how open and accessible the hearings really are, improved public listings of cases, an audit of all courtrooms to fix sound quality issues, and new training on open justice for staff and judges.

Another recommendation is airport-style security checks at all courthouses, after a litany of complaints about intrusive search procedures.

Griff Ferris, one of the Courtwatch volunteers, has complained after he was blocked from entering Stratford magistrates court in March, before being forcibly removed from the building’s entrance.

“It was farcical to be physically removed for trying to observe a case”, he said. “It was an unpleasant experience, feeling the hard edge of authority.

“Two guards grabbed me from either side and frogmarched me out. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Mr Ferris says he complained to HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) shortly after the incident, asking for the preservation of CCTV, but has not yet had a substantial response.

He says he told security on the door that he was at court to observe a trial, but a guard insisted he must provide the name of the defendant and the courtroom that the case was being heard in.

When he insisted that courts are public buildings and members of the public have the right to enter to observe hearings, the guard and a manager refused entry “saying I wasn’t giving a good enough reason for why I was there”, said Mr Ferris.

As the incident escalated, Mr Ferris says he was blocked from entering the courthouse without proper reasoning, he was told all the hearing rooms were “full”, and eventually he was removed from the building.

An investigation into security at Stratford is now underway, after the incident involving Mr Ferris, complaints from female lawyers about intrusive search procedures, and an altercation when a solicitor says he was pinned down by security guards and left struggling to breathe.

“Our security measures are designed to protect the safety of all court users within our premises”, an HMCTS spokesperson said, adding that it would be “inappropriate” to comment further until the investigation has concluded.

It is understood an enhanced security regime had been introduced at Stratford after disruption in court during trials involving eco-protesters.

Responding to open justice criticisms in the CourtWatch report, the spokesperson said: “The sound quality and audibility in our courtrooms is something we take very seriously, and we are working hard to ensure that the equipment and technology in place enables all court users to engage effectively with proceedings.

“We look forward to receiving the report in due course.”