The revolution will be televised

7 September 2011 by

The Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has announced that the ban on broadcasting in courts is to be lifted. Broadcasting will initially be allowed from the Court of Appeal, and the Government will “look to expand” to the Crown Court later. All changes “will be worked out in close consultation with the judiciary“.

Broadcasting in court is currently prohibited by Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 and Section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. However, the rules do not apply to the Supreme Court, the UK’s highest court of appeal. Since it launched in October 2009, the court has been filming hearings and making the footage available to broadcasters. And, since May of this year, the court has been streaming the footage live on the Sky News website.

Many will have noticed that the sky has not fallen in since May 2011. In fact the broadcasting of Supreme Court hearings, almost unique worldwide, have been a boon for lawyers and law students (certainly for this lawyer). Apparently Sky’s site is attracting 90,000 users per day, although it would be interesting to know how many of those users are coming to the site having searched for the US Supreme Court which does not broadcast its hearings.

The success of Supreme Court Live has made it difficult to argue that Court of Appeal hearings, which are similar in that they do not generally involve live witness evidence, should not also be broadcast. Given that there are many more hearings than in the Supreme Court, which tends to hear 1 or at most 2 cases at a time, it is to be hoped that the Ministry of Justice will consider allowing hearings to be watched after the event as is the case on the Parliament Live TV website.

Broadcasting Court of Appeal hearings, as long as the footage is accessible (that is, live streamed and available after the event) will be fantastic for lawyers and law students, who will be able to keep up to date with the latest arguments and advocacy. The public may find appeal hearings, which concentrate on points of law, boring. But as long as the footage is available any creative and knowledgeable editor will be able to make it interesting. I expect that legal bloggers may be dusting off their copies of iMovie to have a try.

The Crown Court, where the most serious criminal trials happen, is a bit more tricky. At present, the proposal is to include “judges’ summary remarks only – victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors will not be filmed“. Note that “offenders” are excluded, so the cameras will not be allowed to film their despondent faces as sentences are handed out. The obvious issue is whether the public, who will be shown a brief fragment of a case, will be any the wiser having seen it.

There are other arguments against broadcasting criminal trials which I have dealt with in a previous post. They are, in summary,

  1. Televised justice leads to soundbites and sensationalism, and edited highlights of a case lose the subtlety of legal argument
  2. Television fosters disrespect for the court
  3. Cameras pervert the trial process as juries become star struck and lawyers grandstand
  4. Victims and witnesses are intimidated and can be less safe as a result

These are all important points and the Ministry of Justice will have to keep a close eye on the effect of broadcasting to ensure that the costs to defendants and victims do not at any point outweigh the benefits of open and transparent justice. In the world of YouTube, footage sometimes takes on a life of its own, so the MoJ will need to tread carefully.

But the key announcement is that the ban is going to be lifted, and once the cameras are switched on and the sky again refuses to fall in, the details can be ironed out and we will have a better idea of what is useful to the public.

Meanwhile, as if that was not enough, the Ministry of Justice has also announced a number of other ways in which court data will be opened up, with much more data being published on the processing and outcomes of cases in the justice system. This is good news.

It was very interesting to watch how the Judiciary and Crown Prosecution Service website, which even has a blog, were used during August’s riots to keep the public informed in respect of arrest, prosecution and sentencing of rioters, almost in real time. Putting aside concerns as to the severity of sentencing, the media flow was handled well and I suspect that the success of that public information campaign, which to a large extent set the media agenda, may have prompted the Justice Secretary’s latest announcement.

There has been plenty of bad news emanating from the Ministry of Justice this past year, notably in relation to legal aid cuts. But the Ministry’s promotion of open justice is to be commended, and putting all reservations aside, I for one am looking forward to settling down on the sofa to watch some live Court of Appeal hearings.

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  1. bigsands says:

    Can they include PATAS appeals, this is more TV material as most of the audience would have received a parking ticket that made them really angry at some point. Now, more people are successfully challenging these ridiculous fines which can be £130 for just dropping someone at a mainline station like Victoria or Paddington, and stopping for 10 seconds. A video camera records your car and they process the fine and post it.

  2. “Limited public scrutiny of the court room is an essential element of democracy;”

    Matt Whayman i think that remark sums up why I take an opposite line from you.

  3. Matt Whayman says:

    In response to ‘Justice of the Peace’. There should be a limit to the word ‘public’ with regard to sensitive criminal trials. It is quite sufficient that the courts allow reporters and members of the public into the court room to view proceedings and provide public scrutiny. To expand this access to the nation will have grave consequences for individual privacy. Think of the defendant found ‘not guilty’ who finds that the jury decision is at odds with the public/media view. Or the convict who is released from prison with the intention of integrating back into society, only to be reminded of their past whenever someone chooses to replay the clip. Think of the witnesses who may amend their evidence given that it is on full display and the jurors who may feel an added imperative to reflect the public mood rather than their own. Limited public scrutiny of the court room is an essential element of democracy; unlimited access with no control over how the footage is disseminated is an infringement of human rights.

    I welcome the proposal to allow cameras into the Court of Appeal, as this court generally deals with points of law rather than matters of fact and it is only necessary for legal professionals to appear in court – no witnesses, jury or parties to the case. In principle, I am not opposed to the judge’s sentencing remarks from the Crown Court being broadcast, but I think the public would be better served by the courts publishing full transcripts of court proceedings on their websites.

  4. Our courts are open to the public. Is there to be a limit to the word “public”? All the arguments against TV …well most of them……were advanced against televising Parliament. There is an effect called pixilation which can obscure witness identity equivalent to special measures. A Court TV channel would be very welcome. The legal process in general has been shrouded too long in tradition and obfuscation by many of its practitioners often to public disadvantage.

  5. I agree with Larry people should not be put on public display against their wishes.

    What about litigants in person ? with the legal aid cuts and the huge increase in senior citizens prosecuted by the CPS who now choose to defend themselves or risk loosing their homes to the State.

    Will we see old ladies and old men stumbling to try to defend themselves against charges they little understand because no such laws existed when they were growing up

    What sport that will be I am looking forward to see an old lady have a heart attack with the stress on camera for all the world to see how wonderful our criminal justice system is.

    Keep television for the masses to civil actions where everyone agrees to be televised.

  6. Is this not reminiscent of the Public Games held in Rome. Perhaps millions of people bored with Big Brother will sit on their sofas with a can of beer and a packet of crisps and watch some poor hapless defendants private life thrown open to the most intense scrutiny.

    what about the Defendants will they have a say.! Or maybe no-one considered their rights or feelings.

    Yes televise the Appeal Courts but not in criminal matters without the consent of the Defendant who has much to loose.

  7. Ian Miller says:

    Great news and I didn’t realise you could already access the supreme court. The announcement seems to refer to criminal courts only though which has obviously has interest for the public but I would really like to see civil appeal court hearings.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Ian – my reading of the announcement is that all Court of Appeal hearings could be broadcast, not just criminal cases.

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