Opinion: “The Revolution will be Televised” – Adam Wagner

9 09 2011

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.

This post originally appeared on the UK Human Rights Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks


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