Feature

Court judgments get a new home… with café, onsite lake and lounging opportunities for law students

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A spot of Carbolic Smoke Ball over a coffee?

The written rulings in Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co and R v Dudley & Stephens

Law students and lawyers fed up with familiar haunts may want to check out the café and lounging opportunities at the National Archives in Kew which has become the new official public repository for judgments from across a range of courts.

From Easter, the institution’s brutalist 1970s building will be the home for a database of important court judgments. The pastel-coloured café, the picnic area around a lake and the many sofas and armchairs that are features of the site could also be a new haven for local law students.

The reading and picnic areas at the National Archives in Kew

Of course, most legal research is an online pursuit and the National Archives will be developing what it anticipates will be a huge, user-friendly case database. John Sheridan, digital director at the National Archives, tells Legal Cheek: “The ambition is that there will be many more judgments and far greater choice available over time.”

It already has a pretty awesome analogue collection of cases stretching as far back in time as 1194. Some of the most legendary common law cases are kept here including those that featured in Legal Cheek’s TikTok series.

Here’s R v Dudley & Stephens, the 19th century cannibalism case that decided that necessity was no defence to murder: if you eat your fellow man because you are starving that’s still a crime.

The written ruling in R v Dudley & Stephens

Also in the vaults is the actual (though IRL a bit underwhelming) written judgment of the Court of Appeal decision in Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co from 1892 which laid the foundations for modern contract law.

The written judgment in Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co

The new home for court judgments marks a significant change in how they are officially perceived. Up until now, judgments have been maintained without any identified purpose. Should records be kept for the benefit of lawyers and students, the parties, the press? Handing them over to the purview of the National Archives is recognition that they are first and foremost important public documents.

Dr Natalie Byrom is director of legal research at the Legal Education Foundation which recommended that the National Archives become the go-to place for court records as part of the Foundation’s work on digital justice.

She tells Legal Cheek: “We are really excited that the Ministry of Justice .. is finally grasping the nettle and establishing that court judgments are a public record and an incredibly important part of any democracy.”

Dr Byrom continued:

“Historically, the UK has had no system of recording and storing court judgments. We have delegated this responsibility to private publishers with profit motives. But courts are so powerful, citizens must have access to court records to ensure that fair decisions are being reached and there is transparency over what is actually going on in courts.”

There is a snag in all this, however: it doesn’t look as if the National Archives database will be comprehensive. This is because the courts themselves are not actually required to automatically lodge all the judgments and decisions that are made with the National Archives.

Historically, any database or source of legal judgments such as BAILII , the free resource, is reliant on clerks and judges at the various courts taking the initiative and making sure that a judgment or decision gets filed with them (estimates are, for instance, that BAILII only gets hold of 55% of the total public law cases decided). And it looks as if this rather random position will remain.

Dr Byrom tells us: “Though the National Archives is building a more user-friendly process, it still needs the Ministry of Justice to ensure courts are filing judgments as a matter of course.”

Sheridan is more positive, adding: “At the moment, there isn’t a managed process at the court end to file all judgments with us. But that is not something we can control. It is a policy decision from the Ministry of Justice in terms of what judgments can be accessed. But we are certain that in the longer term we will be opening doors as we are building the infrastructure here for widening coverage.”

In the meantime, there are plenty of sofas to enjoy whilst revising a spot of contract law or tort. With the added bonus that you could dig out the historical documents themselves.

Visit the National Archives website to find out how to visit and access the collection.

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13 Comments

Legends In Their Own Lunchhour

“But courts are so powerful, citizens must have access to court records to ensure that fair decisions are being reached and there is transparency over what is actually going on in courts.”

Think of all the ‘Freemen on the Land’, Litigants in Person and pseudolaw fans who are going to have the time of their lives trawling through all those papers in Kew.

(22)(1)

Anna

Yes, the thought of it makes me cringe.

(3)(0)

Martin Routh

“Historically, the UK has had no system of recording and storing court judgments. We have delegated this responsibility to private publishers with profit motives.”

This comment by the National Archive is incredibly unfair to bailii, which as a charity has done a brilliant job of providing a free service for public and practitioners alike.

Similarly, there seems to be a big comprehension gap from the National Archive about how the separation of powers works: “Though the National Archives is building a more user-friendly process, it still needs the Ministry of Justice to ensure courts are filing judgments as a matter of course.”

It will be intersting to see whether the tech works properly. Obviously public IT projects don’t have a great track record.

(9)(1)

Scep Tick

” if you eat your fellow man because you are starving that’s still a crime.”

No, that wasn’t the decision.

The decision was if you KILL your fellow man so you can eat him because you are starving, that’s still a crime.

(10)(2)

Ken Able

It is the waiting to be sure you can tuck in that seem to last forever. But if you are in the middle of nowhere and a bit peckish, who is going to know?

(0)(0)

Dr H. Lecter

What a shame…

I was feeling a bit peckish too.

(1)(0)

Lol

I assume the disliker failed their 1st year criminal exam?

(3)(0)

Darius

No need to get all pernickety about it

(1)(0)

curious

Perhaps you could explain how you could eat someone without it leading to their death

(1)(1)

Sherlock Holmes

If they die naturally or if they are dead for whatever reason but for your killing of them, and you eat them. I thought this is logical and obvious?

(1)(0)

Anonymous

This is just going to become a hub for wannabe influencers to post pictures of their “productive” revision sessions, when in reality they will spend so much time re-arranging their mug, highlighters, and whatever else, to then try and capture the perfect photographs for Instagram, that they won’t even digest a quarter of what they are actually reading.

Also, actual lawyers have access to electronic databases. I doubt many lawyers (law students don’t count as they are not lawyers, contrary to whatever they may think in their little clueless heads) will want to waste time travelling here to read a judgment when they can do it online.

(7)(1)

Grew Up Broke

But they have a CAFE!! And CUSHIONS!!!!

(2)(0)

Anomalous

This is an electronic database – or a digital one as we say nowadays.

(0)(0)

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