Opening up the courts to cameras will open up justice

Former Solicitor General Vera Baird QC makes the case for cameras in court.

Vera Baird QC was the Solicitor General from 2007-2010, and the Labour MP for Redcar from 2001-2010

The public should have good access to the bodies that determine its rights and freedoms. Equally they should be able to see how the courts take action in their name.

Labour proposed cameras in court in 2004 but the consultation produced a weak 50/50 response and the plan was shelved. It followed a short trial period with cameras in the Court of Appeal, where justice secretary Ken Clarke now proposes to start his experiment, seven years later.

The practicalities will need honing. Clearly, there will be fixed cameras, streaming content rather than access for multiple TV companies. Judges are likely to say which cases are screened, though they will probably take soundings.

At present, it is proposed only to show judgments in the Court of Appeal but cameras will come, sooner or later, to the Crown Court where cases are heard first time around. Remarks made on sentencing and the judge’s summing up to a trial jury are the current possibilities.

There are rightly no plans to film jurors, witnesses or trials as a whole. We should be cautious about ever going that far.

The public needs witnesses to come to court but giving evidence is an anxious process. It is recognised that there is a need for support and encouragement whereas the added stress of exposure on television would be a deterrent. Jurors must be free of any similar fear of publicity.

Defendants too have rights. The point of televising courts is so the public can have confidence in the process not for the human interest in seeing somebody who is accused of crime. There are arguments against broadcasting an individual who might be acquitted.

When attention moves to the Crown Court, those judges must be fully engaged. It is their workplace, as well as the public forum in which justice is delivered. They must be comfortable with what is proposed for them day to day.

However, the first cameras will be in the Court of Appeal, not the most propitious place to start. The judges there are generally older and used to addressing themselves to lawyers rather than to the public, though people do watch from the public galleries sometimes.

These judges explain their conclusions but they are likely to need a second look at clarity. It will be important to exclude the Latin phrases that occasionally creep in and to use accessible language while remaining accurate and pithy.

However, the Appeal Court is a good place to start in that the inevitable problems of this new venture can be worked out in its relatively sterile arena where juries are absent and witnesses rare. Since the court’s task on appeal is to review the original trial, lessons can be earmarked for future broadcasting in the Crown Court.

The public may start to understand the sentencing process from watching the Court of Appeal but the fuller effect is likely to be when original sentencing is televised. There is a framework of guidelines for most offences but within those the judge makes his own assessment of the individual defendant and the facts of his specific offending.

There is a statutory obligation to explain what is being done and why. This will transpose well to the small screen. People will see that it is a careful and rational process. Far more cases can be shown than the few too-harsh or too soft sentences that currently reach the newspapers.

As I argued on Sky News yesterday, people will see too that these judges, although not representative because there are far too few women or minority ethnic people are, mostly, not out-of- touch or fuddy-duddy either. They just have to dress that way. They are middle aged, engaged in society and trustworthy.

Introducing cameras is bound to change the courts. For instance, there will be pressure to show prosecution and defence speeches in trials. That might persuade more defence lawyers to outline their case at the outset, redressing the present imbalance that only the prosecution talks to the jury at the start.

The more the public can watch the courts that serve them, the better their understanding. Better public scrutiny can only improve the courts. Jury service is usually a valuable experience and public participation in making those decisions is an important and empowering part of our democracy.

This is a further opportunity to feel part of the legal system at work. It may engender more interest, more participation in the Sentencing Counsel’s consultations on guidelines, more diverse people wanting to become magistrates.

What would be an overwhelming gain would be if the public, by becoming familiar with the courts, both understood and accepted that judges are right sometimes to give sentences for rehabilitation more than punishment. Could that help bring us to a place where politicians no longer run before their fear of the public disapproval towards harsher and harsher penal attitudes?

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