Court in action

As revolutions go this one was fairly quiet. With a brief press release on Monday (16 May) the Supreme Court announced that it has introduced live-streaming of court proceedings on the Internet.

Shown live by Sky on its website on Monday and Tuesday this week, the first case to be aired was an appeal by insurance company Scottish Widows against a decision made in the Scottish Court of Session. As court proceedings go this wasn’t up there with the row over superinjunctions in terms of media headlines, although the point being argued – about the transfer of assets in an insurance company and whether these need to be taken into account for taxation purposes – is an important one.

In terms of the way the Supreme Court works, nothing much is changing. The court is exempt from the rules that prohibit the filming of proceedings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and already has four cameras in each courtroom.

Matrix Chambers silk Hugh Tomlinson QC, who is a member of the unofficial UK Supreme Court blog team, says that from a counsel’s perspective having the cameras in court makes no difference. The cameras, says Tomlinson, are “very unobtrusive” and in any case barristers are used to all court proceedings being recorded. It’s just the method that has changed.

Indeed Ewan Easton, a Maclay Murray & Spens partner acting for Scottish Widows, says nobody really realised the hearing was being shown live until halfway through.

The concept of televising proceedings was brought up when the Supreme Court was launched back in October 2009. Many supreme courts in other countries televise proceedings, so arguably the UK is behind the rest of the world in taking this step. 

The Supreme Court itself says it has offered the film of proceedings to broadcasters right from the word go – it’s taken until now for one of them to take up the offer. It was Sky who finally approached the court to get the ball rolling and developed a website to host the service.

Sky News associate editor Simon Bucks says the broadcaster thought that openness in court was a worthy aim, and it “seemed sensible” to use the feed already supplied by the court. Bucks reveals the live stream picked up 12,000 viewers in its first two days, although he does expect that to drop off once the initial flurry of interest has passed.

The service is likely to be of most use to the wider legal community, including students, academics and journalists. The chances of many members of the general public sitting glued to their computer screens as counsel argue the fine points of something like finance law are probably small. However, the Sky site helpfully links users to a Supreme Court page giving the broad facts of each case being screened.

The move does raise the question of whether removing the ban on filming in lower courts would be worthwhile. Litigators are cautious on this point. While welcoming the enhanced visibility the Supreme Court stream gives of the legal system, lower down there are concerns.

Mishcon de Reya media partner Charlotte Harris points out that the presence of cameras in the High Court could be “stressful” for parties, while Tomlinson adds: “Filming of trial courts is a much more sensitive and complicated issue.”

But generally the Supreme Court/Sky collaboration is welcomed. As DLA Piper arbitration head Matthew Saunders notes: “It’s likely to be more accurate than watching LA Law or the equivalent.”