James Lambert: Law Via the Internet Conference 2013

J LambertWhy is an international conference on free access to law being hosted this year in Jersey (population 90,000 and British Crown Dependency)?

It is 11 years since the declaration on Free Access to Law was signed in Montreal  and the Free Access to Law Movement was founded.  Since then the movement has grown to include organisations from more than 50 countries, and recent Law Via the Internet (LVI) conferences have been hosted by members in Africa, Asia and North America.  Now, for the first time, LVI comes to the British Isles.

The Jersey Legal Information Board  has been a member of the Free Access to Law Movement since 2008 and is proud to host LVI2013, where the over-arching theme will be “Free Access to Law in a Changing World”.  But where does Jersey’s pedigree, in the free access to law context, come from? The Jersey Legal Information Board (JLIB) was established in 1999 under the chairmanship of the Island’s chief justice.  As a direct provider of legal information, JLIB is almost unique in being a government sponsored agency.  JLIB’s Vision is for Jersey’s legal system “to be, and be recognised as, the global best for a small jurisdiction”. Historically, JLIB has played a major role in ensuring that the Island’s statutes and case law have been made available online to Jersey’s legal profession, and to prospective investors and regulators worldwide.  More recently, there has been a strategic shift towards making the law more widely and freely accessible to all, and to support this process, JLIB has been a member of the Free Access to Law Movement for the last 5 years.

One of many issues regularly debated by the Free Access to Law Movement, and a particular problem that afflicts Jersey as a small island jurisdiction, is the issue of balancing public interest and open justice with the privacy of the individual, which will be a major theme of this year’s conference.

The principle of open justice is regarded as being of constitutional significance.  In the past, when judgments remained in practical obscurity, there were few privacy issues (the effort required to extract them from the Court archives exceeded the desire to view them).  However, now that they are published on the Internet, Googling a name has become a pastime for the idle or inquisitive.  JLIB has received complaints from people who committed serious offences as young adults, were sent to prison, but now 10 or 12 years later are trying to get their lives back on track.  They feel haunted by the publication of judgments which can be read by prospective employers, people who would like to settle old scores, or people they meet in the street.  This is especially significant to a small island population.

Neither the Data Protection Law nor the Rehabilitation of Offenders Law in Jersey restrict the publication (in full) of judgments on the JLIB website.  However, it would not be unreasonable to apply a process of redaction (or ‘pseudonymisation’) to protect the identity of victims and witnesses involved in criminal cases.

JLIB has addressed this issue by working with the courts, the Children’s Service and the Data Protection Commissioner to agree a protocol for when a judgment should be redacted or indeed retained in a restricted area of the website to which access is limited to the legal profession and the judiciary.  These include:

  • Criminal cases involving under-18s – redacted.
  • Criminal case victims and witnesses – redacted.
  • Trust cases involving minors – redacted.
  • Sexual assault case victims – redacted and restricted access.
  • Public Law Children cases – redacted and restricted access.
  • Adoption cases – redacted and restricted access.

Statute law already prevents the identification of victims of sexual assault, under-18s in criminal or public law children proceedings, and adopted children.  The above protocol therefore reflects and exceeds existing statutory requirements, and is included in a set of guidelines which have been shared with other Free Access to Law Movement members.

Balancing of interests involves an examination on a case by case basis, and balancing the need for judicial accountability with the need for the privacy of the individual.  However, the stated view of Jersey’s judiciary and over-riding principal is that justice must be seen to be done.  Public trust and confidence in the justice system would be jeopardised if judicial hearings were routinely held in private.  There is also a need for open and public hearings to satisfy the public or community catharsis.

Since the Arab Spring, there has been an increasing interest in free access to law in countries where the rule of law is only starting to be established.  Publicly available free access to law is seen as essential in the move towards establishing democracy, respect for human rights, and the creation of a market economy.  Most people in these countries are very familiar with mobile technology, with expectations of receiving information, legal or otherwise, via the Internet.  For the first time, therefore, the conference will include a track entitled ‘Online legal information – starting from scratch’ followed by a practitioners workshop.

The conference is already attracting global interest from places as far afield as Japan, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Namibia, Australia, Zimbabwe, USA, Canada, Mongolia – not to mention many jurisdictions closer to home.  The Conference takes place on 26-27th September 2013, and further details can be found here.

James Lambert is Director of Services in the Jersey Court Service.

Suggested citation: J. Lambert, ‘Law Via the Internet Conference 2013’ ,  UK Const. L. Blog (12 April 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).