Handle with care: court cameras

While many see US court coverage as reason enough to ban cameras in court, Arun Daniel-Selvaratnam says the opposite is true. Arun Daniel-Selvaratnam is a non-practicing barrister.

Louise Woodward has returned to our national lexicon with the Supreme Court of Massachusetts upholding the decision of Judge Hiller B Zoebel. We all have an opinion as to whether or not she was responsible for the tragic death of young Matthew Eappen. The reason why people have formulated these opinions is that, through the media, they have seen the evidence presented from both sides, primarily via the television images of the trial direct from the US.

Despite the controversy surrounding the case, television cameras should now be allowed into our courts. No one would want to see the media circus that was the OJ Simpson trial replicated on this side of the Atlantic, nonetheless, a careful introduction of cameras would allow for a greater understanding of the English legal system.

How would one implement a suitable mechanism? It would seem sensible that such a venture contains input from the State and private spheres. Thus, a parliamentary ombudsman, in conjunction with representatives from the legal profession, the Lord Chancellor's Department and broadcasters, could set about formulating a workable framework.

Cameras could be allowed into court without changing rules or practices. There should be no live broadcasts – cases should be recorded and only made available for viewing once the case has ended and no appeals are pending.

Viewing of the proceedings may be some time after the date of proceedings, but it is paramount that decisions are not seen to be made on prevailing public opinion.

Proceedings heard “on camera” should remain private, as there are public policy reasons why these cases are heard behind closed doors and should remain so. Also, if a trial is recorded, the identities of the jurors should not be revealed.

We can also learn from the US experience and cut out such vulgarities as allowing those giving evidence in the proceedings to appear on talk shows to discuss the cases while proceedings are still taking place.

The public, now more than ever, are aware of the role of the court, especially in cases involving public figures.

However, many people have never seen the inside of a court, and rely on artists' impressions and journalists' reports for case details. Cameras in court would allow the viewer to see a full version of proceedings. Surely this is far better than the interpretation of proceedings by those few journalists in court.

If cameras were present in court, viewers would be able to evaluate for themselves the issues that arise, based on the evidence. One advantage with the Woodward case was that we were all subconsciously acting as jurors as we judged the arguments put forward by both sides.

Future jurors would have an idea as to court procedure. This would go a long way to remove any apprehension a potential juror would have if they had never been inside a court.

There are times when a judgment is criticised in the press for being incorrect. Such criticism may be valid but, in other cases, if the public has seen the trial on television, there may well be a better understanding as to that particular ruling.

Televising court trials would also show that not all judges are out of touch with popular culture. Indeed, it could well lead to a greater appreciation of the role of judges, and the workings of the judicial system as a whole. If the opposite holds true, then public scrutiny will force the legal system to respond.

Cameras in court can also be used as an educational tool for law students proposing to enter the legal profession.

An example of where cameras have been effectively implemented is in the international criminal tribunal at the Hague. The crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia are tried with cameras televising proceedings to be shown across the globe. The United Nations felt when creating this specific courtroom that the presence of cameras was an integral part of the process to show to the world the importance of these trials.

Nobody wants trials to become sensationalised by television, as has arguably been the case with recent US cases. Yet one could argue that it is easier to respect and understand our judicial system through knowledge rather than be sceptical through ignorance. Such knowledge can be obtained from having cameras in court.