EDITORIAL – Court records: More elusive (and expensive)

Part of the routine work of journalism is keeping a newsroom calendar. On it are scribbled upcoming deadlines, anniversaries and events that might warrant coverage, or at the very least a couple of phone calls to check in on how things have progressed.

Glamorous? No. But the practice provides a useful record if a government deadline keeps being pushed farther out into the indefinite future, say, the implementation of digital court records, as the Compass reported last week.

Back in 2017, officials said digital records would be available to the public in September of that same year. Since then, they have kept stringing out the timeline. Details are few and updates seldom, coming only by – sometimes, repeated – requests. In fact, it is likely because the Compass keeps asking that we now know not to expect the digital records until sometime next year – that is, unless officials again demur.

Since the turn of the millennium, digital court records have been adopted around the world to make courts more transparent and accountable. They were promised in Cayman after our onerous court records policies made international headlines in the spring of 2017.

At that time, court administrator Suzanne Bothwell announced that a plan was under way “to make available online, on the Judicial Website, free of cost, the inspection of all public registers, including unreported judgments. This is aimed at expanding the public’s access to court records.”

That access has not materialized, nor have officials offered meaningful updates – failing even to be transparent about transparency. In the meantime, if anything, the courts have increased their control of the public’s information by charging fees for records, such as autopsy reports, that formerly were available without cost.

Open and transparent courts are a cornerstone of any democratic society. Public access to our judiciary must be more than theoretical; it must be practical and affordable. Yet Cayman’s courts have instituted policies and fees that make it difficult and costly for the many to access and secure copies of important rulings and other documents.

We editorialized last summer about this issue, offering a particularly egregious (if not unusual) example – wherein our company was charged $116.50 for copies of two public records totaling 33 pages on cases of significant public interest, including the legal challenge to Cayman’s same-sex marriage ban.

Few everyday citizens would – or could – pay so much to access this public information, nor should they have to.

The rationale for allowing government officials to charge for records is that the fees offset the costs. Frankly, we find that unpersuasive. Public revenues have already paid for the services in the first place. It makes no sense that when the public actually uses those services, they are charged again.

It is the public, not the Compass, that suffers when government charges fees for records, or resists making them easier to access. To be clear, this newspaper will continue paying fees to access public documents; reporters will continue to monitor the promised implementation of digital records.

Last week, when a Compass reporter contacted Clerk of Courts Shiona Allenger for an update, here was her answer:

“We are in the process of installing our Court Search platform; however, we are not in a position to provide a launch date until all internal processes have been tested and are functioning for public use. We do hope to have this suite available to the public in 2019.”

And so, the dance continues. The new “target date” is scribbled in the newsroom calendar. Same song, another verse.