Harry Edmonds, our Byfield intern, gives his views on cameras in courtrooms...

It is a debate that had been discussed in legal circles for the last decade and appears to be remaining no less contentious – should we, living in the twenty first century and the age of instant news, allow the use of cameras in the courts? 

It has been 21 years since the acquittal of O.J Simpson in what many have described as the most publicised criminal trial in history. The case was read or watched by millions of Americans and even had many skits of the trial broadcast on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ showing a troupe of dancers dressed as the judge. But do the critics of this modern intrusion into our courts system really fear that the British media could stoop to this sort of coverage?

According to Peter Arenella, a law professor at the UCLA Law School, speaking to PBS Frontline, the way the media covered the Simpson trial led to the American legal system getting a “huge black eye” which it has not recovered from. “Tragically”, Arenella argues, “instead of looking at the trial process and seeing how an adversarial trial can work where each side has equal resources, most of the public focused on the not-guilty verdict.” Interestingly, he believes that the Judge in the trial did things that a trial Judge would “never do.” For instance, he would let defence lawyers ramble on far longer than a normal trial Judge would because he “did not want to create the appearance of cutting them off.” Ultimately, watching a trial on television is not the same thing as being in the courtroom, the professor says. “You don’t see everything the jury sees. You don’t see the non-verbal behaviour of witnesses in the same way as you see it on a television camera.”

Whatever your views are of the Simpson trial, many advocates of TV cameras in the UK do not necessarily preach for American-style ‘full on’ coverage. Byfield Consultancy’s very own Gus Sellitto , writing in Solicitors Journal, mentions how we need a ‘baby step’ approach to opening up the court system to TV, with checks and balances to ensure the administration of justice is not eroded in any way. Given that judges can be seen as out of touch with modern Britain, Gus argues that this more transparent system could allow them to be seen in a more accessible way. Important safeguards would still need to be maintained to include keeping defendants, witnesses, lawyers and other members of the public out of sight of the cameras.   

However, even with such ‘safeguards’ in place, such as during the televised Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa, many controversies still remain in the minds of legal experts.  During her verdict, Judge Thokozile Masipa who presided over the Pistorius trial raised serious concerns that witnesses had been influenced by watching or hearing others giving evidence before them. Indeed, as a witness it would have been hard to ignore the sudden media explosion across South Africa when the trial began, particularly in the context of three 24-hour news channels and a “pop-up” TV and radio channel purely dedicated to the case. Pistorius’s defence team vigorously argued against the cameras, having claimed that many potential key defence witnesses were scared off.

However, there remains broad support across South Africa that televising the trial was at least a useful education tool. Lawyer William Booth, speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Harding believes that it was good for South African justice, given the public could assess whether the courts were doing their job correctly or not. Professor James Grant, from Wits University in Johannesburg, was able to animate class discussion on Pistorius’s defence strategy and talked about how students were able to follow the case to write it up for homework.

Sir Brian Leveson, the former head of the Leveson inquiry and currently the President of the Queen’s Bench Division, has firm views on the subject.  Speaking at the Caroline Weatherill Lecture on the Isle of Man last year, Sir Brian told the audience that he had “little doubt” that the presence of cameras would “alter the dynamics of a trial and put undue pressure on witnesses, many of whom will be reluctant participants in the court process.” Sir Brian warned of the risk of “converting through editing” what is intended simply to be law in action into an “action movie”.

Of course Sir Brian has also had to put an end to the odd ‘action stunt’. Eagle-eyed viewers watching the televised Leveson Inquiry will remember the ejecting of a protestor from the court. Immediately after the man had been removed from the room, Mr Blair commented how in his experience, such a stunt would then dominate the news rather than the raw proceedings of what had actually been said in court. Naturally, we have become accustomed to witnessing politicians face the odd heckler or having to duck down from a flying egg, but you have to wonder whether the interruption in this case would have happened if the cameras had not been filming?

Clearly cameras in court remain an ongoing matter of debate.