BuzzFeed reports Ministry of Justice to Information Commissioner over report 'cover-up'

BuzzFeed has complained to the Information Commissioner that the Ministry of Justice covered up the existence of a "substantial report" into judges and prosecutors' experiences of people without lawyers, which has become more commonplace following cuts to Legal Aid.

Buzzfeed has reported the Ministry of Justice to the Information Commissioner, saying it is guilty of breaching freedom of information laws
Buzzfeed has reported the Ministry of Justice to the Information Commissioner, saying it is guilty of breaching freedom of information laws

Last Tuesday (8 May), BuzzFeed exposed details of a leaked, full-length report that included warnings from judges about the growing numbers of defendants appearing in court with no lawyer. "Some of them just sit there like a rabbit in the headlights and haven't got a clue what's going on," one judge was quoted saying.

The research, conducted among 15 crown court judges and six prosecutors, had been commissioned by the Government to assess the impact of cuts to legal aid.

BuzzFeed claims that the MoJ had concealed the existence of the 36-page report, having only provided its reporter with a "brief, sanitised, six-page summary", claiming it was the full study.

Several Freedom of Information requests had been made by BuzzFeed and other parties in spring 2017, with the MoJ turning down the request because it argued that the information should stay confidential as it related to the creation or development of government policy.

After an intervention by the Information Commissioner, the MoJ relented and released a document, which it described as a "research summary" and claimed it was the only version of the report in existence.

But now that BuzzFeed has been leaked a copy of the full report, the online news site, alongside two other third parties, has reported the ministry to the Information Commissioner's Office for breaking Freedom of Information laws.

BuzzFeed's reporting has not gone unnoticed by the rest of Fleet Street, with one correspondent from the Standard stating that the MoJ had been caught "red-handed" over the affair and had damaged its relationship with the media outlet.

Shadow justice minister Richard Burgon said the story indicated that the "Government is trying to cover up a problem of its own making", referring to the Government's cuts to legal aid; while Lord Beechman, who first called for publication of the report in a written question to the House of Lords, described it as "appalling".

The debacle has also drawn strong criticism from the legal profession, including the Criminal Bar Association chair Angela Rafferty, who argued that "those who need legal representation should have it" to prevent miscarriages of justice, adding that "the broken justice system cannot and should not be swept under the carpet".

When questioned by the Lords' Constitution Committee, Justice Secretary David Gauke said that "something like 99 per cent of applicants for legal aid are successful".

PRWeek contacted the MoJ but it declined to comment.

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