Staples: a story about accessing court records

Gabriella Razzano (1).jpg

Gabriella Razzano

20178-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

A little pile of staples blinked at me condescendingly. It had taken exactly 12 minutes to savage these little bastards from 693 pages of dense, and spontaneously organised, court filings. By this stage, I was willing to siphon them off with my teeth if that resulted in me getting a copy of these papers ready. Because this had been a painful experience, and a sad one. This was the basis for a somewhat elaborately drawn-out story — the premise being: how does one access a South African court record?

So let’s start at the beginning by way of introduction: I am a ‘kind of’ lawyer, i.e. not a practicing one. I mean, I have L.A. Law as my ringtone obviously, but have no desire to immerse myself in the world of civil procedure and black cloaks that practice entails. Instead, I work with civic technology hub — OpenUp — which focuses on facilitating engagement between citizen and state through enhanced transparency and participation. We have opened access to By-Laws and Gazettes and thought to ourselves, what other records would help make access to justice a reality? Our friends at SAFLII and AfricanLII already facilitate access to judgements, so why not improve access to court files themselves: the backbone to both civil and criminal litigation?

To my mind, the value of court records is immense. While a court judgment gives the story of what the judge thinks the solution to a conflict is, the court file tells the story of the source of the problem from each persons perspective. Another way of thinking about it is like: would you rather hear the screaming match between your two neighbours through the wall, or interrogate the removal truck driver who moves out Barry’s things? I, for one, like to have my glass to the wall.

Court records are, as a matter of course, required to be open. However, courts act a bit like their own principalities, with different courts implementing the process for access to these records in slightly different ways. As a problem-solving and user-centred organisation, we at OpenUp decided the first step to do before considering access to court records more generally was to jump in and explore first-hand what an upliftment exercise involves. I knew already that in the Cape High Court you had to file an upliftment order, and then return the next day to access the file. But that was the sum total of what I understood of the process. And so began my somewhat painful four day sojourn into the lived court experience…

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Gabriella Razzano is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics, and Director and Head of Legal Research at Open Democracy Advice Centre in South Africa. She tweets at @jablet

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo credit: Gabriella Razzano