In an article in today’s Financial Times, under the above headline, legal correspondent Michael Peel writes about the fees payable to access Supreme Court documents.  He says:

“The new Supreme Court will charge members of the public a minimum of £350 a time to access documents – a fee critics say makes a mockery of official promises of open justice in the country’s most important cases.

The top legal chamber has boasted about accessible modernising gimmicks, ranging from video links to easily digestible summaries of its judgments. But those wanting to do an old-style reading of available legal arguments will pay a high price for their interest”.

Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information is quoted as describing the fee as “clearly excessive” and Dan Tench of UKSC Blog describes it as “outrageous”.  Hugh Tomlinson QC is quoted as saying that the £350 fee was especially surprising given the absence of similar charges in many other countries.   We have mentioned the position in other Supreme Courts in previous posts.

The court defended its fee, saying that while it wanted to make its work as open and transparent as possible, this had to be “balanced with other considerations”.  It went on to say that documents and information would be added over time to its website “which was still under development”. 

Under Practice Direction No 14 all documents must be filed at the court electronically.  This has, presumably, been done in all cases lodged since the Court opened for business in August.  None have yet been added to the “Case Details” on the website.  We hope that this will be done in the near future.

The position in relation to access to documents in the Supreme Court can be contrasted to that in the High Court – helpfully summarised by the law firm Farrer & Co in this update.  As long ago as 1989, in a case called Lombard North Central v Pratt  ((1989) 139 N.L.J. 1709)  the Court of Appeal directed that an extra copy of Skeleton Arguments should be made available to overcome journalists’ criticisms that skeleton arguments prevented open justice – although this was not to be done in cases involving children or where reporting restrictions are imposed.  In April 2008, Eady J required the parties to an application for an injunction to provide copies of the Skeleton Arguments to “journalist and legal observer” Mr Benjamin Pell.  In practice, parties to cases which are of interest to the media usually bring extra copies of Skeleton Arguments to court.

But parties to appeals in the House of Lords were never required to produce copies of their written cases to the press and, as far as we are aware, rarely did so.   We hope that everything will be sorted out when the website is fully functional.  In the meantime, a direction or indication from the Court that all parties to Supreme Court appeals bring extra copies of their printed case to be made available to the press on the day of the hearing would be of considerable assistance to the press.