Open Justice and Court Files

Perhaps not hot off the press, but nonetheless worth noting, is the decision of the High Court last month in NAB v Serco & Home Office [2014] EWHC 1225 (QB), which reiterates the Court’s commitment to the open justice principle and press access.

B had been a detainee in an immigration removal centre, in which she alleged she had been sexually assaulted by a male nurse employed by Serco. She brought claims against Serco (in vicarious liability for the assault) and the Home Office (for false imprisonment) for damages. A statement was filed which exhibited Serco’s internal investigation report into B’s complaint of assault. Serco settled the claim, but the claim proceeded against the Home Office. The exhibited report remained part of the trial bundle but was not referred to in the judgment and was not relevant to the issues between B and the Home Office. After the judgment, the Guardian applied for a declaration that B could lawfully provide it with a copy of the report, under CPR r.31.22.

Bean J granted the declaration. It is now fairly well-established that in R (Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2012] EWCA Civ 420, [2013] QB 618 it had been held that in a case where documents had been placed before a judge and referred to in the course of proceedings, and the default position should be that access to those documents should be permitted on the open justice principle. Although it was an unusual feature that Serco was no longer a party to the claim and the report was no longer relevant to the issues in the case, those matters were not decisive. The particulars of claim and other pleadings were public documents subject to inspection as of right under CPR r.5.4C(1). The fact of the allegations having been made was therefore in the public domain. If after the settlement, but before the case against the Home Office had come to trial, the Guardian had applied under r.5.4C(2) for access to the report, the application, would have succeeded, just as it would had it been made at any time before the Court disposed of the file. There was a proper journalistic reason for seeking the report, and it was sometimes important to understand why a claim had settled. Providing the individuals were anonymised, the Guardian could be provided with the report.

The application of the open justice principle, and the ability of journalists to access court documents remains a current trend in the case law – given a kick-start by Guardian v Westminster and an unexpected sidewind in Kennedy v Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20 – and NAB is a helpful reminder of its utility when using the existing court records access provisions in the CPR.

Christopher Knight