In My Opinion: Austin Lafferty: Cameras in court should be broadly welcomed

THE Judicial Office consultation on televising courts has created the usual flurry of media activity.

In spite of the fact that we have been in a television age for over half a century, the question of allowing cameras into court remains a hot topic whenever raised.

The consultation has asked a number of questions, about the practicalities and risks surrounding the making of documentaries, news reportage, live feeds and social media use in courts. Some questions have been separated out between coverage of debates and appeals – i.e. hearings featuring lawyers and judges only, as against trials and cases involving participation by lay persons and witnesses.

The Law Society of Scotland has, in turn, issued a response to the consultation, going through each point and highlighting risks and additional research and work needed before any conclusion can be reached, but broadly supporting the idea of making courts available for TV broadcasting purposes.

After issue of the responses, I was myself then on TV and radio  talking about the matter, and reassuring viewers and listeners that this is not some helter-skelter ride into wall-to-wall coverage of every case, but early steps towards an outcome in which litigation is made more public than hitherto, but with appropriate case choices, safeguards and supervision to be imposed and accepted.

Not all cases can be filmed, not all participants in cases should be on television. Indeed, one cornerstone of any regime should be the consent of all parties to a case before it passes for broadcast. Reference was made to the New Zealand system in which application can be made by broadcasters to film a case as being a model worth considering, in part at least.

In phone-ins and discussions, many voices have been raised in opposition. Sometimes that unwillingness to countenance television in court is across the board, but the impression I got was that most people didn’t have a fundamental difficulty with the concept of cameras in court. Indeed, we have already had various projects and programmes in Scotland going back to the 1990’s where criminal and civil cases have been shown in an edited format, and the Supreme Court in London broadcasts lots of its appeals in video streaming.

What has come across clearly is the genuine concern that court attendance is already an intimidating and stressful event, and may be made much worse by having to do it in front of a camera. And the potential vilification and victimisation of an (innocent) accused person or a witness, shown on millions of television screens, is an oppressive and dangerous prospect.

Personally, as someone who has spent many years in front of TV cameras for a living, I think those fears are overstated.

We live in a television age, and I don’t consider that the presence of cameras is a sea-change in the conduct of trials, whilst a person prosecuted but acquitted can already be put on our TV screens under current provisions.

Every night, on the news programmes, we see the ‘walking shots’, as they’re called in the trade, of the accused coming to court or leaving. The Bill Roache trial had a daily ritual of him being filmed walking calmly into the Crown Court in Manchester flanked by his children. So this isn’t revolution, it’s evolution.

That said, I can think of all sorts of cases that should not be covered, and, under the Law Society of Scotland responses, the judge should always have a discretion to make a decision on these matters, underpinned by media company service standards and a robust code of practice.

Justice must be done and seen to be done. That’s not a media-age innovation, it is a tried and tested maxim in civilised jurisprudence. As with Parliament in its lawmaking role, I believe that we as those subject to the law have a right to see how it is administered. Few of us have the time or opportunity to go regularly to court to see cases proceeding, and television – produced responsibly and under judicial control – is an obvious means of achieving this.

Austin Lafferty is a Past President of the Law Society of Scotland.