In-court cameras, and the release of videos of interviews and of crime scenes, show the public how the law works. That is good, says John Battle

JUSTICE should be seen to be done, as well as done. This is the principle of open justice.

But a challenge for lawmakers and judges is how much openness should be allowed in court. Traditionally, open justice meant leaving the door of the court open. The public could enter and see what was going on.

But the public has little time or inclination to sit in court. In the digital age, should open justice be something more?

In England and Wales, there have been changes. There is an increase in openness in the courts and more information coming out of the courts. Images — such as CCTV footage — shown to juries in the criminal courts are now disclosed to the media on the same day. The images are then broadcast on television or published in newspapers.

The change is due to ‘The Protocol for Working Together: Chief Police Officers, Chief Crown Prosecutors and the Media’, agreed between prosecution authorities, police, and the media.

Before the protocol, it was rare for the media to be given footage shown in court. The lack of images meant that court reporting followed a formulaic pattern of stock shots showing the scales of justice or the court building, the reporter standing outside the court saying what they had heard inside, shots of the arrival of the van holding the defendant, and court sketches made outside court of what the artist saw in court. Nothing in the court was shown.

The protocol’s underlying principle is that material shown in court can be released by the prosecution and police to the media. This includes police videos of the scene of a crime or property seized, transcripts of interviews, videos, or photographs showing reconstructions of the crime, or police interviews and CCTV footage of the defendant.

Victims are consulted in appropriate cases. More often than not, victims or their families have no objection to images being released, so the public know the truth of what happened.

The protocol has brought about the biggest change in court reporting in modern times and has increased the amount of court reporting. There have been other initiatives.

Reporters are allowed to tweet from the court — they do not have to seek permission from the judge, following a practice direction from the UK’s lord chief justice, in 2011. Normal court-reporting laws, such as contempt of court, apply to tweeting from court as much as to writing for a newspaper. Same principles and laws, just a different format.

The use of in cameras in court has also increased. The British Supreme Court is seen on television and is livestreamed on its website. The British Court of Appeal now allows cameras to film its proceedings. This year, a pilot study was allowed to film judges’ sentencing remarks in the criminal courts. Legislation is likely, in due course, to this end.

The CPS Media Protocol has now been running for over 10 years. Cameras have filmed the UK’s supreme court since 2009. The most important thing with all these initiatives is that the sky has not fallen down. Trials have not been affected; there have been no real problems. The changes swiftly became part of the system.

But the real change is that the public is given more information about court cases and the legal system. It leads to greater understanding and engagement with the legal process.

For those involved in the system — judges, lawyers, prosecutions, authorities — it has meant greater public understanding of what they actually do. That’s a good thing.

For the media, it means we’re better equipped to do our job and to inform the public.

The adoption of modern methods of communication by the courts is vital not only for the general public, but also for the legal system. It is important that our justice system does not become a backwater, understood by few and with little engagement with the public. In the digital age, the notion that open justice only goes as far as leaving the door of the court open is not sustainable.

John Battle is a leading media lawyer in the UK and head of compliance at ITN, which produces television news, and current affairs programmes for ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5. He has been involved in many UK media law developments, such as cameras in court, disclosure of prosecution evidence to the media, and greater access to sports footage to news organisations. He will be speaking at NewsBrands Ireland’s ‘Open Justice’ conference in Dublin this evening. For details, please contact NewsBrands Ireland.


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