Time to lift the lid on County Court justice

A FAILED application to gain access to a County Court summons which was made by the The Lawyer on 26 June has revealed a significant discrepancy in the operation of the civil courts.

It is a long held tradition of the High Court that writs are made available to the public. The practice has never been questioned because the principle that justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done, stands at the heart of our justice system. Unless there is an overriding reason for confidentiality to be maintained, the public has a right to know who is using the legal system to pursue their grievances and why they are doing it. Sadly, that principle does not apply to the County Courts where district judges have the discretion to release summonses, but where the onus is on the applicant to justify why he or she wants access to it.

On 26 June, District Judge Martin Samuels exercised his right to refuse The Lawyer access to a summons involving a dispute between a clerk, three barristers, and a pupil, claiming that the parties involved had a right to privacy. But why shouldn't we, the public, know what is going on in the courts that we subsidise? Worryingly, for those who fear that incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights may gag the press, the judge said the case had "nothing whatsoever to do with human rights, apart from the fact that there is a right to privacy".

The Lawyer has no idea what the two sides were fighting over, but if they wanted to solve their dispute in private they should not have commenced proceedings that would culminate in a public trial. Thankfully Lord Irvine has an ideal opportunity to bring the County Court rules on the public availability of summonses in line with the High Court.

As part of Lord Woolf's reforms, a rules committee, presided over by Lord Irvine, is currently working on draft civil court rules which would embrace both courts.

The Lawyer has written to Lord Irvine asking him to iron out the anomaly we have exposed. Given the Government and senior judiciary's drive to banish unnecessary secrecy from all quarters of the state, including the courts, we trust he will act quickly.