TV cameras are to be allowed to film in Crown Courts in England and Wales for the first time.
New legislation being laid before Parliament will allow judges’ sentencing remarks in serious high-profile criminal cases to be seen and heard by TV and online audiences. However, trials will not be televised as they are in countries such as the US as only the judge will be filmed.
The judiciary, broadcasters and government have welcomed the move. The legislation will, for the first time, allow TV cameras to film judges passing sentence in murder, sexual offences, terrorism and other serious high-profile criminal cases in Crown Courts in England and Wales, including the Old Bailey. It marks a radical change and a significant extension to the operation of open justice though whole trials will not be televised.
Filming in the Scottish Courts has been allowed subject to permissions and conditions since 1992 but it does not happen that often and the first filming of a sentencing in Scotland was in 2012.
In the US, cases including the 1995 trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman made gripping television but faced criticism for providing an unedifying spectacle at times.
In England and Wales, the concern has always been that televising trials could deter victims, witnesses and jurors – the vital cogs in the trial process – from taking part. So, the judge alone will be seen on camera as he or she delivers their sentencing remarks. No-one else involved in the trial – victims, witnesses, jurors, lawyers or the convicted defendant – will be filmed.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland denied the move would be a “blind stumble” into an “undesirable OJ Simpson-style scenario”. He told TalkRadio it was “about information rather than entertainment” and the plans had the full support of the judiciary. The full sentencing remarks of any case broadcast will also be hosted on a website to which the public has access.
The legislation should take around three months to make its way through Parliament, meaning the first broadcasts should take place in late spring or early summer.
Today’s move follows a successful three-month pilot that allowed not-for-broadcast sentencing remarks to be filmed in eight Crown Courts.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, said: “It is important that the justice system and what happens in our courts is as transparent as possible. “My hope is that there will be regular broadcasting of the remarks in high profile cases, and that will improve public understanding.”
Criminal Bar Association chairwoman Caroline Goodwin QC said the move would “bring greater transparency and a better public understanding of the criminal justice system”. However, she stressed the importance of restricting filming to sentencing remarks, adding: “Nothing must compromise the interests of justice, the primacy of a fair trial, and respecting the interests of vulnerable witnesses, witnesses generally and defendants.” But not everyone has given the move an unconditional welcome. Bar Council chairwoman Amanda Pinto QC said: “If the public see judges’ faces in the living room on television and are able to identify them more readily then unfortunately they are more likely to be personally attacked, and possibly details published about them which should not be.”
Since 1925 it has been a criminal offence to film, or even sketch in court – so court artists must go outside and draw those involved in the trial from memory.
Filming has been allowed in the UK Supreme Court since its creation in 2009, and in 2013 cameras were allowed in the Court of Appeal but cases in these courts are appeals, and confined to lawyers’ arguments and judges’ rulings.
Today’s announcement marks the first time cameras will be permitted in Crown Courts in England and Wales where serious crimes are tried.