Victory! UK Supreme Court hearings to be streamed live

16 May 2011 by

That was quick! The Supreme Court appear to have responded to the request I made on Thursday that hearings be broadcast live on the internet. From today, Sky News will be broadcasting all hearings live via this website.

All hearings at the court are filmed, but until now only broadcasters had been able to use footage. I first argued in October that this was a waste and the hearings should be live screened. I don’t actually believe that my posts had anything to do with this minor technological miracle, but I have tried it out and it works. This is very exciting. For the first time the general public, lawyers and law students can see the advocacy in the UK’s highest court of appeal live and unedited.

The court initially said that it would be too expensive to live stream, as it would be “extremely resource-intensive” to convert the footage. Lord Neuberger then entered the debate, saying that he saw no reason why the footage shouldn’t be broadcast live, and that other countries had similar arrangements.

Either the Supreme Court, or more likely Sky, has solved the resources problem. The court’s chief executive said today that she is “grateful to Sky News for taking the initiative in developing this service, which will be welcomed by all those who are concerned for improving access to seeing justice being done.”

If Sky have paid for the service, this sounds like an excellent win-win scenario. The broadcaster get traffic to their website and the supreme court do not have to raise the funds. That said, I do wonder how Baroness Hale feels about an arrangement being reached with a commercial broadcaster. In an interview, she commented on how important it was for the court to be independent and be seen to be independent (in that case, from the government), even to the extent of choosing whether it sells bottled water. Might people assume that the court is now sponsored by Sky?

In any event, I always wondered whether converting the footage would have cost that much, given that, as a commenter last week’s post pointed out, the court was already handing out DVDs of digital footage to school groups.

Without wanting to overstate the impact of technology, my view is that this marks a new era for access to justice. Most people in the UK probably don’t know that they can visit any court they like, on pretty much any weekday, and watch proceedings in action. They are also unlikely to find out, as courts are difficult to find and usually amongst the least attractive and unwelcome buildings in any town.

Now they can watch the UK’s most important cases live at the click of a button. They will see the judges and advocates in action, and make up their own minds about important rulings.

Of course the public may not understand what is going on in the hearings. But the footage will now be in the public domain, which will allow educators, bloggers and other lawyers to engage with it creatively. I would hope that now the footage is being converted to internet format as a matter of course, the public will be able to download it either through the Sky website, YouTube or by request. It is after all, our supreme court. And to see it live from the comfort of our armchairs is a victory for everyone.

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  1. Ella says:

    This sounds really good. Supreme Court on the TV. I believe this would be very useful for law practitioners, law-students and everyone interested in law cases. This could be something like real advocates` series:)

  2. Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether Sky are actually paying for the footage needed to provide this service (or contrarily being paid for providing the service itself). Aside from the installation of the Lords in the Supreme Court and their segregation from the House of Lords, this has to be one of the most important legal process developments in the last 10 years. The UK has been seriously lagging behind countries like the United States who have managed to get even their more minor courts proceedings (as opposed to just judgements) out in the public domain. The General Public may visit their nearest court, but unless involved in proceedings are highly unlikely to visit the Supreme Court: this allows anyone with an internet connection (or access to a public library) to watch proceedings. My only issue would be that this service seems to fit far more comfortably within the BBCs remit… and I do have a feeling that this is something they should have taken by horns and run with…

  3. James Wilson says:

    This is an excellent development. As mentioned in previous posts the usual concerns about witnesses being reluctant to attend court etc don’t apply to the Supreme Court, so there never really was any valid reason not to televise the hearings and put them on the Internet one way or another. I doubt the involvement of a commercial organisation will compromise any appearance of impartiality either.

  4. Huzzah! It should be fascinating – and is only a pity that it comes too late to see the oral arguments in the Cadder v. H.M. Advocate appeal (I hope that a certain measure of Scots law parochialism may be forgiven!)

    I’m interested that this broadcasting will be “live”. The equivalent stream of the European Court of Human Rights (which nevertheless holds far fewer oral hearings than the Supreme Court, despite the much higher number of judgments the ECtHR produces) is not broadcast immediately, I’m told out of a concern that sensitive information may be disclosed to the wider public by spontaneous transmission.

    No doubt similar issues may arise in matters before the Supreme Court. It’ll be interesting to see how that is managed, practically.

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