Court TV – the downside

Introduction

I’m in favour of open justice. We need to do much, much more to open up the criminal (and civil) justice system to public scrutiny. As of Monday 28th October 2013 the Court of Appeal (both civil and criminal divisions) will be open for broadcasting. Basically, four courts will have cameras set-up permanently, and broadcasters will be able to dip in and out of 15 others in the RCJ.

The Lord Chief Justice is looking forward to it. Is this a good thing? Whilst I am not looking forward to being filmed whilst arguing a case in Court (especially if I am getting a kicking for reasons good or bad), is there any problem with it?

The arguments have generally been well rehearsed. I just want to raise two thoughts (one serious, one less so) that haven’t been much considered, two reasons why this may not be such a great step forward.

 

1. This isn’t particularly open

Will this help the public understand?

I have real concerns as to how accessible this will be. The Judges and advocates will have transcripts of the proceedings below, case summaries, skeleton arguments and ground of appeal. All of these are probably needed to make sense of what is going on.

A hearing in the Court of Appeal won’t start with a nice summary of the facts and the legal issues that the Court are considering. It will go straight into the argument on the basis that everyone present and involved in the hearing will have read all these documents. Without them, watching could be a very frustrating experience.

When I’ve been in the Court of Appeal (particularly on an appeal against sentence) I’ve often sat in the courtroom waiting for my case to get on. There will often be several cases before me being heard.

I’m a lawyer and frankly I often had no idea what the hell was going on. A lay person who had tuned it would, I imagine, have no clue at all. My first Court of Appeal case was an appeal against a sentence of 18 months. The hearing consisted of me standing up, the lead Judge saying “we’ve read your grounds of appeal, how about 12 months?” and me sitting down again. How helpful would that be to the public?

This isn’t an argument for not televising the courts – it’s an argument for actually having ‘open justice’ rather than talking about it.

In every case there will be, in electronic form, a Court of Appeal summary which contains the facts and the history of the case. Also, there will be typed grounds of appeal and skeleton arguments where both sides set out what their arguments are.

If we are committed to open justice, put all these online. Some cases (sex cases are an obvious one) would need redacting (as an alternative, whilst the system is getting up and running, these could be simply not posted on the web).

This would be far more useful at informing the public than televising the courts. It could go hand in hand with television, and would mean that people watching a case would be able to find out what all the folks in wigs are talking about.

Court TV is a gimmick, publishing the Court documents shows a true commitment to open justice. It’s perhaps more complicated, but if we are serious about opening up the Courts – do that as well.

 

2. The wrong Court?

This is just a thought. The Court of Appeal features the Criminal Justice System at its best. Everyone prepared and everything done properly (most of the time at least).

It would be far more illuminating to go down to the local Crown Court on a Friday and film the PCMH list – files lost, legal aid not in place, PSRs not produced on time, CPS not complying with Court Directions, prisoners taken to the wrong place, Judges trying to case manage based on a two page case summary, etc etc.

That way the public could really see what is going on in their name in the bulk of criminal cases. They would be truly appalled.

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