OJ - what price for UK law?
10 October 1995
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If US justice has indeed been on trial in the OJ Simpson case, most observers will feel that, unlike the defendant, it has been resoundingly convicted. And if that is right, is UK justice merely on remand, awaiting the same fate?
It is surely dangerous to be too categoric of vicious circles. The media coverage was so intense that the stakes for all the participants were raised to a level which led to an inevitable breakdown of professional ethics.
This made the spectacle all the more hypnotic and the coverage increased.
Most UK trials are conducted with, at the very least, a superficial politesse.
This may sometimes be hypocritical but it does avoid the jury being distracted by the personal and personalised battles of the lawyers. This is one of the few advantages of our traditional methods of address and the enforced civility of our procedures.
Some suggest that this would be the first casualty of televised court proceedings and they will doubtless feel their case is bolstered by the OJ circus.
But is it not a question of maturity, of both the system and its participants?
UK advocates might turn into strutting prima donnas in front of a camera ( if the trial judge let them), but I rather doubt it. There would no doubt be some who might ham it up but what of that? Why is television different in principle to a public gallery?
All it does is permit more people to see and judge the criminal justice system which purports to represent and protect them.
And what of the obscene media carnival? There is the possibility of evidence being corrected and recast not by witnesses but by the lawyers outside court, of the constant pressure on the jury, and the enormous financial incentives for them to tell the inside story, or the exhaustive and exhausting analysis of every detail and the constant comment of supposed experts.
As our law presently stands, almost all such behaviour would thankfully be caught and thus prevented by the provisions of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
Indeed, the forthright action just taken by the judge in the Geoff Knights case may indicate that the legal fight-back has already begun. Albeit a drama on a much smaller canvass, it will be instructive to compare the media coverage of the Rosemary West trial.
This will no doubt often be fatuous and tedious, but it simply cannot be as dangerous and intrusive as the US coverage. And provided the media coverage is controlled, we avoid the grotesque prospect of the sequestration of jurors whose effective imprisonment has lasted almost as long as OJ's.
The OJ trial is a warning but not by any means a premonition. It must inform our debate but must not paralyse us in our attempts to adapt out system to embrace technology and the legitimate concerns of the public for open and accountable justice. It is a vivid example of what can go wrong if we let it. But why should we?