Criminal Trials To Be Shown On TV

High Profile criminal trials are to be shown on British television for the first time under plans to throw court-room doors open to the cameras. The proposals by the Lord Chancellor to bring the workings of the legal system into the living room are expected to be outlined by the end of the year.

Both criminal and civil trials as well as appeals would be televised under plans to be unveiled by Lord Falconer of Thoroton which open up the possibility of a US-style court television channel. There would, however, be curbs on coverage to prevent victims and witnesses being identified.

The reform comes after a successful pilot involving the filming, without broadcast, of proceedings in the Court of Appeal last year.

But Lord Falconer, who believes “justice should be seen to be done” wants to go further than appeals, allowing cameras into Crown Court trials and other civil proceedings as part of a wider strategy to open up the courts to the public.

There will be strict conditions on the use of material, however, to strike a balance between demystifying the courts and safeguarding the justice system.

A consultation paper is expected before Christmas, outlining options as to how broadcasting trials could operate. A key safeguard, urged by judges, will be the protection of witnesses, victims or juries from being filmed, so as not to deter witnesses from coming forward. It is likely that filming of defendants would also only be allowed subject to consent or, failing consent, with his/her features electronically blurred. The summing up by judges and delivery of sentence could be broadcast in criminal trials; and in appeals the entire hearing.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, QC, is also on record as having no objection to cameras filming judges’ sentencing remarks and broadcasting them.

Broadcasting of trials will need legislation to remove the current statutory ban on cameras in courts in the Criminal Justice Act 1925. In Scotland where there is no ban, cameras have been allowed in courts under strict supervision since 1992. But broadcasting is rare because of the extent of restrictions.

The debate over cameras in English and Welsh courts has been raging since the late 1990s, with judges and politicians anxious to ensure that trials do not become American-style media circuses.

In the United States, criminal trials are regularly televised, with the cable channel Court TV broadcasting the country’s most newsworthy and controversial legal proceedings. The most high-profile broadcasting of a trial was that of O.J. Simpson, the former footballer and actor, acquitted of murder charges live on television.

The five-week pilot on broadcasting trials in England and Wales last year was organised with Channel 4, Five, ITN, Sky and the BBC. Any future broadcasting is likely to operate on a pooled agreement, to avoid the need for multiple cameras in courts. The only court proceedings currently televised are the decisions of the law lords, which are announced in the House of Lords.

Under relaxed rules, court proceedings that could be televised include: appeals; civil proceedings — opening and closing arguments, judge’s ruling; Crown Court trials— opening speeches, closing speeches, judges’ summing up, passing of sentence; appeals in family cases but not those involving children.