Court of Appeal broadcasters must learn the Supreme Court lessons

31 October 2013 by

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

TV cameras are recording Court of Appeal hearings from today. The BBC, ITN, Sky News and the Press Association are cooperating on the project, and have hired an in-court video-journalist who will recommend the most interesting cases.

This is great news. Let in the light. The more that the public can see what is going on in their courts, the better. The courts are a bewildering place for the uninitiated and especially for those who cannot afford to pay someone to explain what is going on. This is still a relatively small advance – only appeals will be broadcast, not trials, so the public is unlikely to see any cross examination of witnesses. But hopefully it will be enough to increase public understanding of and interest in the courts.

But a word of warning. This initiative will only succeed if it is implemented in the right way. And, there are important lessons here from the Supreme Court’s ongoing broadcasting experiment.

Since its launch in 2009, the Supreme Court has been giving broadcasters access to footage of its hearings, and more recently hearings have been live streamed online thanks to a partnership with Sky News.  The court has also  launched a Youtube channel which shows short announcements of its judgments, but not hearings.

I am increasingly disillusioned by the Supreme Court and Sky News’s efforts to broadcast Supreme Court hearings. At first, the model was similar to what has been announced for the Court of Appeal – hearings were only available to broadcasters. The idea was that the most interesting cases would be shown, or at least clips from them. But it failed. For whatever reason – lack of interest, time or skill – the broadcasters didn’t really bother to pick out the best bits from appeals as had been promised.

Next came live streaming. This was a canny move by Sky, as it allowed the broadcaster to gain experience and build trust with the courts and judges, probably with the intention of moving onto the juicier stuff like criminal trials. I have no issue with that – Sky should be praised for investing in this idea and encouraging more of the same.

But even live streaming is of limited use. Because, unlike the excellent Parliament Live service, or indeed other supreme courts in Canada and Brazil, you cannot rewind and re-watch. This is incredibly frustrating. The most important appeals of our times – on Julian Assange‘s extradition, the definition of terrorismprisoner votes – featuring our greatest advocates, are being broadcast and the only people who can watch are those who happen to have a day or two to spare during the working week. This is a great waste. In the internet age, it is unacceptable that these resources are not available to the public, law students and lawyers in a way which they can really use.

I have asked the Supreme Court why footage of hearings are not available after they have happened, and the response I received was essentially that it was too expensive. Now there there are four media organisations sharing the cost of showing Court of Appeal hearings, that cost could be shared. There are at least four reasons for doing things differently this time.

First, hearings are being recorded at great expense already. The additional cost of streaming for playback cannot be that much higher.

Second, it would be incredibly useful for practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners to see the great advocates arguing a difficult case. The context of complicated appeal hearings means that would be a far more effective afterwards than live, when people could be directed to the most interesting parts of the footage.

Third, given how often law is poorly reported in the press, it would be useful if the public to see the courts 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.

Fourth, putting the raw footage online would provide legal enthusiasts the opportunity to use that footage in creative ways. There are still no edited highlights packages of hearings. These would be 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. Given the lack of legal expertise within the broadcasters, the best way to achieve this would be to crowd source the task, and that means putting the archive footage online.

One of the best known of all legal quotations is “not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done. Lord Chief Justice Hewart could not have imagined 90 years ago the advances the internet age would bring. The age of mass social media has arrived, and online broadcast of court hearings is long overdue. All that is needed now is a little imagination, so justice and truly be seen to be done.

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  1. Andrew says:

    Most of what goes on in the courts is of interest to nobody except those involved. For the rest of us? INSOMNIA – A CURE AT LAST.

  2. Mike says:

    I am watching the broadcast at the time of writing. I am falling asleep :(

  3. ‘you cannot rewind and re-watch’: I quite agree. When recently watching a Supreme Court case I didn’t quite catch what was said by counsel that prompted a question from the bench. Would loved to have wound back!

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