Court TV – the downside


I’m in favour of open justice. We need to do much, much more to open up the criminal (and civil) justice system to public scrutiny. As of Monday 28th October 2013 the Court of Appeal (both civil and criminal divisions) will be open for broadcasting. Basically, four courts will have cameras set-up permanently, and broadcasters will be able to dip in and out of 15 others in the RCJ.

The Lord Chief Justice is looking forward to it. Is this a good thing? Whilst I am not looking forward to being filmed whilst arguing a case in Court (especially if I am getting a kicking for reasons good or bad), is there any problem with it?

The arguments have generally been well rehearsed. I just want to raise two thoughts (one serious, one less so) that haven’t been much considered, two reasons why this may not be such a great step forward.

 Two thoughts

1. This isn’t particularly open

Will this help the public understand?

I have real concerns as to how accessible this will be. The Judges and advocates will have transcripts of the proceedings below, case summaries, skeleton arguments and ground of appeal. All of these are probably needed to make sense of what is going on.

A hearing in the Court of Appeal won’t start with a nice summary of the facts and the legal issues that the Court are considering. It will go straight into the argument on the basis that everyone present and involved in the hearing will have read all these documents. Without them, watching could be a very frustrating experience.

When I’ve been in the Court of Appeal (particularly on an appeal against sentence) I’ve often sat in the courtroom waiting for my case to get on. There will often be several cases before me being heard.

I’m a lawyer and frankly I often had no idea what the hell was going on. A lay person who had tuned it would, I imagine, have no clue at all. My first Court of Appeal case was an appeal against a sentence of 18 months. The hearing consisted of me standing up, the lead Judge saying “we’ve read your grounds of appeal, how about 12 months?” and me sitting down again. How helpful would that be to the public?

This isn’t an argument for not televising the courts – it’s an argument for actually having ‘open justice’ rather than talking about it.

In every case there will be, in electronic form, a Court of Appeal summary which contains the facts and the history of the case. Also, there will be typed grounds of appeal and skeleton arguments where both sides set out what their arguments are.

If we are committed to open justice, put all these online. Some cases (sex cases are an obvious one) would need redacting (as an alternative, whilst the system is getting up and running, these could be simply not posted on the web).

This would be far more useful at informing the public than televising the courts. It could go hand in hand with television, and would mean that people watching a case would be able to find out what all the folks in wigs are talking about.

Court TV is a gimmick, publishing the Court documents shows a true commitment to open justice. It’s perhaps more complicated, but if we are serious about opening up the Courts – do that as well.

2. The wrong Court?

This is just a thought. The Court of Appeal features the Criminal Justice System at its best. Everyone prepared and everything done properly (most of the time at least).

It would be far more illuminating to go down to the local Crown Court on a Friday and film the PCMH list – files lost, legal aid not in place, PSRs not produced on time, CPS not complying with Court Directions, prisoners taken to the wrong place, Judges trying to case manage based on a two page case summary, etc etc.

That way the public could really see what is going on in their name in the bulk of criminal cases. They would be truly appalled.

5 thoughts on “Court TV – the downside

  1. sadiequinlan

    hello Dan Bunting, I have just read your post re open Court – and I find your argument an extremely weak one. Firstly ANY amount of transparency has got to be a good thing. if ‘lay’ people do not understand – well they can always look it up and keep watching and LEARN. Is your training as a Legal person so secretive that you cannot share? or are you afraid of the outcome? either way – you are wrong to try and keep everything hidden. take me for example – I was bankrupted in a London Court WITH NO KNOWLEDGE WHATSOEVER. YES YOU HEARD IT RIGHT – i HAD NO IDEA MY BANKRUPTCY WAS IMMINENT – OR THAT IT HAD HAPPENED. If you read my blog I am on twitter as @SQinternet – and then maybe you will understand how vitally important it is for everyone to be open and honest with the facts. otherwise, like me, we could possible get railroaded into oblivion – have all ‘our’ money STOLEN, on trumped up bankruptcy charges that were hidden from me – and unlawful. – This has given me 6 years of utter HELL , during which time i have had a nervous breakdown and its virtually split my family up, Even the most loving families dont quite understand how anyone could lose almost a million quid through British Courts and legal systems if one had not done anything wrong. YOU WALK A MILE IN my SHOES Mr Bunting, then perhaps you will see things from a lay persons viewpoint. I would welcome your comments – feel free to email me at thank you – Sadie Quinlan

  2. Malcolm Boura

    I am a layman, albeit one with more knowledge of the law than most. I agree entirely that both greater openness in general, and the documents in particular, are essential. They can be made available online at negligible cost to the courts and also linked via the red button from the TV set.
    I share the low opinion of the competence, particularly in the lower courts, of just about all involved in the administration. A100% acquittal rate, and we do not cherry pick, indicates serious police and CPS problems. That about a third of those acquittals required an appeal indicates serious problems in the magistrates. NB these cases did not involve contested facts, they were purely interpretation of facts and statute.
    I had a very high opinion of the police and justice system until about 7 years ago. Then I started to have more dealings with it; helping prepare defence, expert witness for police, that sort of thing, and my opinion plummeted.

  3. Tracey McMahon (@MAFTC)

    I’ve found myself gripped with his and have read Dan’s points both here and on the link provided.

    I’m a layperson who has been on the oh so very wrong side of the law. We will never get rid of the mob mentality in the UK, it’s so deeply embedded from the days of the Poor Law and watching people being beheaded et al.

    People don’t want to understand truly what goes on in the matter of the CJS. They think they understand. They can learn yet the endemic culture of people is born and bred from a fear of crime and the CJS as a whole. I look at things simply and from the ground-up. It’s brilliant for those who want to see the COA and have a good, working understanding of the law on basic, untrained levels, like me. This blog does this very well and helps people like me who has a towering thirst for the law and cases is brilliant for that.

    Is it a good thing? I’m not clever enough to answer that one but I can say this. It’s definitely interesting and I hope more people come in and comment with their thoughts. The pack and herd mentality seen around various forums is rife and that pack mentality is so deeply entrenched in society, it will not help the “hang em & flog em in Asda’s car park on a Saturday afternoon for all to see” crowd.

    It’s also going to be interesting in how the media will handle the broadcasting.

    There’s two ways this one can go. Help people to have a deeper insight of understanding of the law and in particular the COA;


    Further deepen the masses who are willing to still shout louder about what is wrong with the CJS and the Appeal Court in this country.

  4. duncanheenan

    Though I support the idea of more openness in the judicial process, I think it should not happen until the case is over. To turn serious Court proceedings in to real-time entertainment is to disrespect real people’s lives and privacy. It might also affect the outcomes.
    I can see a great argument for criminal cases being opened up after the verdict, but I can not see the public interest in opening civil cases us. Why should people’s private business become public property?
    My own view is that until there is a verdict, all cases should be kept to those involved, and even press reporting goes too far already. After the verdict, by all means let’s see what happened in criminal cases, but not civil ones.

  5. Pingback: A failure of Open Justice? | UK Criminal Law Blog

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