Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, laid the groundwork for significant constitutional change in England and Wales with the announcement of a wide-ranging consultation on the contentious issue.
Supporters of court cases being televised believe the presence of cameras would help transform the way the public views the legal system. But detractors think it would discourage witnesses from appearing in court, as well as lead to sensationalised coverage and ultimately undermine public confidence.
Lord Falconer confirmed that judges had agreed to a pilot scheme, first revealed by the Guardian last year, which could see appeal court cases being filmed in the next few months. The pictures will be used in mock news reports, which will be shown to judges and lawyers to demonstrate what coverage would look like in practice. The pilot scheme will feature cases heard by the lord chief justice Lord Woolf, the master of the rolls Lord Phillips, and the deputy chief justice, Lord Justice Judge.
Announcing the move at the Media Guardian Edinburgh international television festival, Lord Falconer said: “Justice should be seen to be done. But our priority must be that justice is done.”
He was keen to play down fears that filming cases would lead to sensationalisation. “We will not have OJ Simpson-style trials in Britain. We must protect witnesses and jurors and victims. We don’t want our courts turned into US-style media circuses.”
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A Scottish court permitted filming as an experiment in 1992, but the coverage of US trials, such as those involving the former American footballer Simpson and the English nanny Louise Woodward, put the brakes on the scheme. Only now is BBC Scotland putting cameras back in the lower courts (for a documentary).
Lord Falconer indicated that he did not favour letting cameras in to criminal trials in England and Wales, when it is often difficult to persuade witnesses to testify. But witnesses do not often appear in appeals, making these hearings more suitable for televising, he said.
Speaking in a debate at the TV festival Lord Falconer said there was “substantial evidence” that witnesses would be put off coming to court if they knew they would be filmed. It would “make more people nervous of coming forward and giving evidence”.
But broadcasters believe this concession means cameras in criminal trials are now inevitable. John Battle, ITN’s chief lawyer, said filming of the appeal courts would be a first stage; if this were successful, broadcasters would argue for televising of lawyers’ opening and closing remarks in trials, and of sentencing. He told the festival: “Why are we so afraid of showing the public how our system works?”
Alistair Bonnington, BBC Scotland’s veteran legal adviser, claimed some lawyers and judges were afraid of being exposed as poor at their jobs. “They have got very many reasons not to let cameras in, because people would realise that so many of them are idiots.”
Denise Brown, sister of OJ Simpson’s wife Nicole, whom he was acquitted of murdering 10 years ago, told the Edinburgh audience that she approved of cameras in court. She said they made it more difficult for witnesses to lie.
But James Dingemans QC, counsel to the Hutton inquiry, parts of which were televised, said in an interview recorded for the debate that he was opposed to filmed court cases. There were very many parts of a legal case that could be “dull and not worth broadcasting” and so broadcasters would be selective. “It enables people to sensationalise and therefore innocently misrepresent what happens in court.”