A charity investigating whether the public right to see justice being done in court is still respected had its observers kicked out, asked for ID and interrogated, a shocking new report reveals.

Under a centuries-old principle known as open justice, anyone in the UK is able to watch court cases, inquests and tribunals from a public gallery.

But when Charity Transform Justice sent more than 80 volunteers into courts across London to see how they were treated, their findings were chilling.

Those who were allowed inside were often unable to see or hear properly, partly due to the dilapidated state of the buildings.

One was physically manhandled when he told security he was there to observe, while two more were thrown out after they and others complained that they couldn’t hear.

The incidents were revealed in the charity’s CourtWatch London report, published on Monday (May 20), which suggested court staff “did not understand the spirit of open justice”.

A foreword by bestselling author The Secret Barrister said: “All too often, volunteer court-watchers were discouraged, deterred and even met with active hostility while trying to exercise the most basic right to watch justice being done.”


One volunteer said security staff forcibly ejected him from Stratford Magistrates’ Court, “saying I wasn’t giving a good enough reason for why I was there”.

He said he had explicitly told them he was there to observe.

But staff “kept refusing and asking me to leave and I kept asking what the basis for that decision was and under what authority,” he alleged.

“I said it was a public building and there’s a right to observe any of the trials.

“Then two of the court security grabbed me and physically moved me outside the court and said not to try and re-enter.”

The incident is now under investigation.

Richmond and Twickenham Times: Two CourtWatch volunteers were thrown out of a courtroom at Highbury Corner Magistrates' CourtTwo CourtWatch volunteers were thrown out of a courtroom at Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court (Image: Google Streetview)


Two more volunteers were thrown out at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ after they and others said they couldn’t hear.

They were in the public gallery alongside a prospective magistrate and some teenagers accompanying a defendant.

The prospective magistrate was allowed to move to the front so they could hear, but the others were not.

When the teenagers complained, they were ejected for being “disruptive”.

When CourtWatch volunteers queried the teens’ ejection, they too were thrown out, for "interfering”.


In other cases, volunteers were wrongly told they had to show ID to enter court or were asked to fill out forms, supposedly because “the judge needed to know who was in the courtroom”.

One was wrongly told they needed “permission” to sit in court.

“The spirit of open justice was too often broken,” said the report.

“People should not need to explain why they are observing and such questioning risks intimidating anxious observers.”

It added: “The courts are meant to be open to any who want to observe, for whatever reason. Our court-watchers should never have felt they needed to justify their presence, but they had to do so all too frequently.”

Richmond and Twickenham Times: Croydon Magistrates' was one of the main three visited by Transform Justice's London CourtWatch projectCroydon Magistrates' was one of the main three visited by Transform Justice's London CourtWatch project (Image: Google Streetview)

“A work of fiction”

The scheme focused on three courts in north (Highbury), south (Croydon) and east London (Thames Magistrates’ in Bow) – but others were visited too.

Volunteers had trouble hearing at every court they attended, finding hearings were only consistently audible 23% of the time.

Causes included broken microphones but also that “lawyers often, and judges sometimes, spoke quietly, as if they were having a private conversation”.

Broken screens also meant evidence played in court, like CCTV, sometimes could not be seen by observers.

Volunteers found court buildings were “filthy” and, in almost 30% of cases, not accessible to disabled visitors.

Another common problem was inaccurate court lists - which outline who is being tried in which court, when and for what - described by one volunteer as “a work of fiction”, often advertising cases in the wrong courtrooms.


Transform Justice called for an “audibility audit” of all courts and better court listings.

It urged the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to “train court staff and judges in the principles of open justice” and said observers should be able to see evidence which is written or shown on screens.

The MoJ said it had launched a “Citizen’s Charter” in December about public attendance at court, but thanked CourtWatch for its report, which it said it would review.

“Open and transparent courts are a key principle of our justice system and it is vital people can see for themselves how justice is done,” it said, adding that it took audibility “very seriously” and was “working hard” to ensure all court users could “engage effectively with proceedings”.