Do broadcasts from the Court of Appeal set a dangerous precedent?

JackFroggatt's picture

The 31st October 2013 is a day to be remembered. Not, as you may suspect, for the usual fancy dress, trick or treat and pumpkin carving but from this date, for the first time, proceedings within the Court of Appeal are to be televised.

It is not a historic day of the same magnitude as the moon landing, the end of the Second World War or the birth of Prince George of Cambridge but it is, nonetheless, a day of great significance which some welcome and others, like Jack Froggatt, litigation solicitor at North West law firm Brabners, treat with a degree of scepticism.

The televising of proceedings ends years of campaigning by the media and broadcasters to lift the restrictions imposed by the Criminal Justice Act 1925 which, with the exception of the UK Supreme Court, banned filming in court. The intention of the reform being that the public will now be provided with a greater insight into the judicial system and witness first hand how it operates; presumably to give the public greater confidence in it.

Whilst court rooms have generally been open to the public, the proceedings within the Court of Appeal will now be accessible to a wider audience who, if they so wished, would be able to observe from the comfort of their arm chair rather than the public gallery.

Click for full size info graphic (Ministry of Justice) Click for full size info graphic (Ministry of Justice)

Importantly, the broadcasts will have some safeguards with a 70 second delay allowing any offensive material to be edited, it will only be the Judges and advocates that will be broadcast and in cases where there is an appeal against a conviction where there could eventually be a re-trial, the footage would only be aired once the case has concluded.  In addition, the broadcasts can only be used for the purposes of news and journalism as opposed to entertainment, comedy or advertising.

Concern does not necessarily reside within the reform itself as the Court of Appeal, by its very nature, largely deals with appeals relating to points of law which are usually niche and fairly dry. In turn, this is unlikely to provide the most inspiring or “edge of your seat” viewing for the objective observer.

It may also be the case that the broadcasting of proceedings is received with the same enthusiasm as the broadcasts from Parliament with only the most avid political followers or high profile decisions showing or attracting an interest, in which case it could be said that there is little to fear. However, concern lies within the precedent that the televising of proceedings may create.

The old saying that “you can always add more but you can’t take any away” resonates throughout this reform. Once cameras are allowed within a court room, as they have been in the UK Supreme Court and now the Court of Appeal, where and when will it stop?

Whilst the implications of the reform may not be instantaneous or immediately noticeable it does pose the question whether this now signifies the beginning of descent into an Americanised, “Judge Judy” system where advocates may be engaged on their charisma, stage presence and celebrity status as opposed to their ability.

In years to come will the televising of proceedings be main-stream within our legal system not only in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal but in the lower courts? Will litigants be able to appear in their own reality television drama airing their (and their opponents) dirty washing before the court and millions of potential viewers?

Unfortunately, only time will tell as to whether we see the day where our legal system is undermined to the extent that it is no longer judged on its justice but the entertainment that it provides.

Jack Froggatt is a litigation solicitor at North West law firm Brabners