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Caught on camera: Judges, trials, and videotapes

A new pilot scheme sees judges' sentencing remarks filmed for the first time to test the viability of cameras in court. Gus Sellitto examines the effect this could have on the administration of justice

17 August 2016

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On 27 July 2016, the Old Bailey broke with more than 400 years of tradition when Judge Nicholas Hilliard QC, the Recorder of London, delivered his sentencing remarks to camera in the trial of Muhaydin Mire, who was found guilty of the attempted murder of a musician at Leytonstone tube station. It was the first time that cameras were allowed to film a criminal courtroom. Until now filming has only been allowed at hearings at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of cameras in court divides opinion among judges, lawyers, politicians, and the wider public. Many, including former justice minister Shailesh Vara, argue that cameras in court would open up the justice system and make judges more in-touch with the public. Detractors point to the worrying specter of trial by television and the creation of a media circus around high-profile criminal cases, reminiscent of the now infamous OJ Simpson trial and more recently in the Oscar Pistorius hearings.

My own view is that opening up the justice system to the wider public is a good thing, particularly when public opinion polls consistently show that there is a widespread mistrust of the judiciary and a lack of understanding of how the court system works.

Judges are seen as out of touch with modern Britain and a more transparent justice system could allow them to be seen in a more accessible way, as long as they explain their decisions in clear and simple language. However, we need a 'baby steps' approach to opening up the court system to TV, with checks and balances to ensure the administration of justice is not eroded in any way. The current pilot gets that balance right.

Under the scheme, footage will only be sent to the Ministry of Justice and the Court Service but it is hoped that legislation could be passed next year to allow the filming to be used publicly. This will allow plenty of time for any legislation to be properly debated.

Additionally, only the sentencing remarks of the judges will be recorded. Defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and other members of the public will not be filmed. This is an important safeguard and one that ought to be maintained.

Broadcasters also have a duty to make a success of televising the courtrooms. The current system of TV court reports being brought to life by the pencil of a court artist is clearly outdated and harks back to an almost Dickensian image of the court system. Unsurprisingly all the major broadcasters have embraced the move to allow cameras into the criminal courts, arguing that most other countries in the developed world broadcast news reports with footage from their courts.

I agree, but it is a fact that crime makes good television and there is a danger of sensationalising the courtroom in order to push up viewing figures. This means that broadcasters need to think carefully about how they use video footage in the context of their wider coverage of a case. Ensuring fair and accurate reporting and continuing to respect and adhere to our contempt rules will be key here.

Finally, the public also has a part to play in making cameras in court a success. The whole rationale behind the pilot scheme is to better inform people of how the court system works and to make the administration of justice more transparent. This is to be applauded and should lead to a more inclusive debate about how our justice system works. But we also need to be mindful of the type of mob justice and vigilantism we often see on social media by a minority of the public and ensure that this does not lead to the rule of law being downplayed in any way.

Despite valid concerns about underfunding and a lack of transparency, our criminal justice system is arguably the best in the world. Any moves to make it more accessible, provided the right checks and balances are in place, are to be welcomed. Let the cameras roll.

Gus Sellitto is managing director of Byfield Consultancy and specialises in reputation management for law firms

Categorised in:

Procedures Courts & Judiciary