UK Supreme Court judgment summaries on YouTube… now we need the full hearings

21 January 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 09.43.46The 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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  1. So the Supreme Court acknowledges that there is a strong argument in favour of uploading footage of entire cases, but their stated reason for not doing this is that “it’s a bit difficult” – seriously?

    It surely can’t be as difficult as etching the Magna Carta onto their building’s windows:

  2. Further to @chrishanretty on providing online hearing transcripts:

    How publicly accessible are the written arguments of each party? Are they, in principle, open to the public?

    At present in senior courts, only the judgments freely available online, incorporating summaries of the relevant facts and issues. Case summaries are available commercially. But these might only be a fraction of the information openly put before the court, obscuring the breadth or quality of each side’s research and argument.

    Since the marginal cost of uploading PDFs is negligible compared with the pre-internet cost of photocopying bundles of printed papers, could/should counsels’ written submissions be made available online too?

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      I understand that the written submissions issue is about copyright, which is apparently owned by the person who drafts it. But in principle I agree that as many documents should be uploaded as possible (as opposed to the number at present – none.) My thoughts on this are here.

      1. Thanks for the response and the link to your excellent article on open justice. You retweeted earlier about a possible copyright exemption in the context of video recordings of barristers’ “performances”, so I wonder whether written documents are also exempt.

        For non-sensitive court documents, does the public currently have a right to inspect them, to make their own copies, or to purchase copies from the court (either at cost or at a rate in the court’s discretion)?

        Presumably transcripts, being made by commercial contractors, are not formally court documents, so the case for copyright protection is strong. And FOI does not annul copyright on disclosed information (subject to section 102 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 in relation to factual datasets). It seems like the interests of open justice are in conflict with the interests of advocates who, understandably, don’t want others to build directly on the cases they have made.

        Would greater openness reveal a prevalence of boilerplate arguments? That, of course, would be a poor reason for shrouding the formulae from public view.

  3. Sarah Meek says:

    Dependent upon the technicalities, WordPress have just this month published a pluggin ‘JW Player for WordPress – Flash & HTML5 Video Player’. Also back in August another pluggin ‘VideoPress’ was added to the list. As the developers have made the pluggins’ available on WordPress, it should be free for all as it’s an open-source platform (I presume).

  4. If the cost of hosting is determinative, then what about transcripts of hearings?

  5. Ronan says:

    Would audio recordings made available as podcasts (similar to SCOTUS oral arguments on be less expensive, and easier to use? Listening to oral arguments on an iPod while out cycling, walking, or in traffic, would seem more enjoyable than video on a screen.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Very good point – and the complicated editing wouldn’t be necessary

  6. YouTube may not be the best place for videos of such length. They’d need to be broken up into chunks and this would indeed be a pain. It would be great though to have a VoD channel somewhere. Or maybe share them as torrents. Now there’s a radical idea! Perhaps the UK Supreme Court court could sign up for a Mega account :)

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      That would be mega! Or perhaps illegal. I suppose we will find out…

      I take the point about YouTube, but I imagine this could be worked through with Google who seem quite amenable to both public information access projects and bespoke YouTube content (usually in partnership with media companies, but Sky is already involved with the SC Live project)

  7. Daniel Olive says: combines live streaming with an (I think 30 day) archive. Perhaps they could use the same system? Things can of course be chopped up on Youtube. The pirated West Wing and Yes, Minister episodes (that of course I don’t watch) are in 10 minute segments or so. One hour segments can work, at least with audio and album art which obviously slashes the file size.

    I would just add my concern at taking a highly paid advocates work, mashing it up and using it to teach without consent or payment. I wouldn’t like it if it happened to me.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Entirely agree about Parliament Live – it is a fantastic service. Also, the BBC Democracy Live service, which is superb.

      Also, interesting point about the advocates’s work… but do advocates own their ‘performances’? Very interesting question!

      1. Daniel Olive says:

        Wouldn’t Copyright subsist in their creative work? I had assumed but looking at the 1956 Act I’m not so sure now. It’s not really a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, which seems to be required, but then neither are my lectures (however much life is injected into rescission as a remedy for breach) but the University maintains copyright subsists in those.

  8. “Too expensive,” the judges said, speeding off in their Jaguars.

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