How could broadcasting live trials impact the future of our legal system?


The broadcasting of Crown Court proceedings has increased judicial transparency, yet there are concerns over the fairness of future trials

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Image by Joe Passe

By Callum Willey

For the first time in July, cameras were invited to broadcast inside criminal court cases in England and Wales. The decision marks a significant milestone towards modernising and promoting transparency in British judicial proceedings by permanently enacting online hearings, introduced as temporary measures during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As well as providing greater transparency for the general public, there has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the media towards these live broadcasts, as they increase their access to reporting on trials. The first landmark case to be televised was that of Ben Oliver – taking place in the Old Bailey, the defendant was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of ten years after stabbing his elderly grandfather.

Yet coverage is limited to Crown Court proceedings (where serious criminal offences are trialed, including murder, rape and robbery) and within that, only the judge’s sentencing remarks. In addition, the judge is the only member of the court allowed to be filmed, excluding others such as the defendant and victims. These broadcasts are shown with a ten second delay to avoid any inappropriate reactions to the judge’s decision (such as swearing or violent behaviour) being broadcasted to the world.

The importance of open justice within our legal system has been expressed by Lord Chief Justice Burnett, with the belief that inviting online public viewing through broadcasting helps provide transparency and create greater public interest in the courts. During a Justice Select Committee last month, Lord Burnett described it as “a really important step and is long overdue.”

Live broadcasting these trials gives the public a chance to gain a greater understanding of the judicial process. The UK lacks accessibility of the law to the general public compared to other countries (the United States, for instance) - legal knowledge is rarely taught in schools and is a highly technical and complicated field, leaving the majority of us unequipped to face legal situations in the future, from being charged with a crime to needing to seek justice for one.

Similarly, there is a clear public fascination and interest in the law and seeing justice achieved - we all want to feel safe in a society where laws are followed and individuals are held accountable for their crimes. This fascination can be traced back to public hangings and witch trials in the 15th Century, and this fascination has not disappeared (although our values have certainly changed). Opening up the courtroom to the public can be viewed as a positive step towards closing this gap, demonstrating not only what it looks like and how it works, but the kind of language used and the decisions it sets out.

However, fears have been expressed concerning the live broadcasting of trials leading to legal cases being sensationalised, as public fascination and interest turns these cases into exciting forms of entertainment. This can already be seen in high profile cases which have become like sitcoms for public viewing. This could result not only in serious cases with real life implications being turned into mere entertainment, but also in the public desensitisation to the law.

Further issues may arise in public viewing by limiting broadcasting to only the judges sentencing remarks. Without viewing the whole trial and arguments put forward by both parties, there is a danger that viewers will not fully understand the factual and legal reasoning behind the decision without knowing the full picture of the case presented in court. In order to provide full transparency of our justice system and the law it may require fully televising cases.

Therefore, the question arises as to whether we should open up the courtroom further, showing the whole trial and cases from other courts (such as important family cases), or whether this runs the risk of conflicting with the fairness of trials and privacy of parties involved?