The UK Supreme Court has today launched a YouTube channel showing short summaries of judgments. The summaries are read out by justices when a judgment is released. There are already ten online and more will be uploaded each time a judgment is released.
Since its launch in 2009, the UK’s new Supreme Court has been doing rather well at online access to justice. Its website is clear and elegant, it publishes excellent press summaries at the same time as judgments, it was the first supreme court to join Twitter (@uksupremecourt now has over 27,000 followers) and its hearings can be watched live online thanks to a partnership with Sky News.
Judgment summaries are a good start. Without wanting to sound ungrateful, what would really be useful is to be able to access recordings of full hearings on YouTube, as is provided on the superb Brazilian Supremo Tribunal Federal YouTube channel. The UK’s most important legal hearings are being recorded at great expense and in excellent quality. But, if you miss the live transmission, it is almost impossible to watch them again. Being able to watch them again online would be extremely useful for lawyers, law students and members of the public.
The Supreme Court’s press release says this on the subject:
Due to the length of Supreme Court hearings and the additional technical resources needed to make these available online in a similar way, there are no immediate plans to archive entire appeal hearings, though demand for the new service will be closely monitored.
How many extra resources would the upload of full hearings take? I asked Ben Wilson, the Supreme Court’s head of communications, who said the court has looked at uploading full hearings. The issue, however, is the
length of our hearings – we tend to average 10 hours per appeal… Editing, reformatting, compressing and uploading that volume of footage is really not as simple as it sounds, and YouTube couldn’t take that sort of length.
Hearings are much longer than, for example, in the United States where the Supreme Court uploads audio files of hearings. This means that the UK court “need to invest in a bespoke service” which would probably require an extra term time member of staff/contractor. In short:
we won’t rule it out, but it genuinely does depend on the level of interest we get in the judgment summaries and whether we can make a strong enough case for the additional resources.
So, in reality, it comes down to money. Which is fair enough. But in my view there is a very strong case for using the extra resources.
First, the fact that hearings are being recorded at great expense already means that not giving the public access to historic recordings is a waste of the money already spent.
Secondly, it would be incredibly useful for practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners. Imagine if law students could watch classic performances by leading advocates, perhaps edited by their tutors. Advocates could do the same, and also find out how an argument developed at oral hearings.
Thirdly, given how often law is poorly reported in the press, and how few members of the public even know where the Supreme Court is (or that it exists), let alone visit it, it would be useful if they could see the court in action in controversial cases not just when they are being heard, but also when the real controversy erupts after a judgment is handed down.
Fourthly, and in line with the Government’s open data initiative, putting the raw footage online would provide the public, media and legal enthusiasts the opportunity to use that footage in creative ways. One thing that has not emerged since the Supreme Court began filming its hearings in 2009 is edited highlights packages of hearings. These would be in essence the holy grail for practitioners and students, opening up the court in new and exciting ways. But the footage needs to be available online first before this can happen.
Those are just a few potential benefits to having full hearings online. Please do leave your own via the comments. I have also set up a poll here so that those who think putting full hearings online would be a good idea can say so. I will of course pass the results onto the court.
One less positive note. As I have said before, by comparison with the Supreme Court, online public access to other UK courts is quite depressing. Almost none of the excellent innovations from our highest courts have been passed down to the lower courts, and that is a great problem for access to justice. In the world of the internet and social media, there really is no excuse for court documents, judgments and hearings not to be accessible online.
But the UK Supreme Court should get the credit it deserves for its excellent, public-facing attitude to technology and social media. With just a few tweaks, the excellent service which it already provides will evolve into a truly world class one providing genuine online access to justice.
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- Poll: Should the UK Supreme Court put recordings of entire hearings on YouTube?
- There is a democratic deficit in the courts… here’s how to fill it
- UK Supreme Court is tweeting, but where are the other courts?
- The BAILII lecture: No Judgment, No Justice
- How Supreme Court Live works