I’m a few days late in reacting to the new DPP Keir Starmer’s statement that he’s not opposed to televising criminal trials, subject to safeguards. I back him wholeheartedly; this has been exactly my view for years.

I well remember in the days before I was a lawyer, visiting my local Crown Court in Warrington. I found the public gallery all right – it consisted of about ten chairs as I recall – but my lone appearance there was obviously unusual because an usher came across to ask me whether I was a witness, a relative of the accused, or a member of the press. It was quite clear that outsiders were quite unexpected, and though not unwelcome were a source of puzzlement. I can also remember as a student how often the small public galleries at Manchester Crown Court were full – again, there might only be a dozen seats, as I recall, in courts in one of the country’s major cities. The truth is that our court system is public in theory only, and that while the right to trial in public is guaranteed by the Human Rights Act, in reality the characterisation of the criminal justice system as “public” depends entirely on press reporting. Most unreported trials are in effect private, and as a whole the system is very much one for insiders. So much so that most people have no idea how ludicrously unrealistic are TV shows like Criminal Justice and the hilarious Judge John Deed. I think most people also imagine judges in Britain bang gavels on desks, like the American judges they see in films.

This situation is completely unacceptable. The public has a right to see what goes on it courts, a right which should be real, not a nice white liberal lie, and the public ought to see it, too. Defendants and witnesses have a right to know that the public sees what’s happening, too. Bad laws, policies and cultures that treat defendants in a harsh, automatic way, that allow witnesses to be abused an intimidated and that permit unjustified delays need to be exposed, not allowed to carry on unnoticed.

Yes, there need to be safeguards, and some commission or committee of establishment bores should probably be set up to consider them: perhaps only evidence seen by the jury should be aired live, and not legal arguments, say about the admissibility of evidence (although it’s just as possible now for a mate to lurk in a court and tell a juror about these arguments as it would be if the arguments were televised). Perhaps certain types of trial need to be held back from screening – although I’d caution against the automatic assumption that rape trials, for instance, should never be seen. There is so much political debate and campaigning about rape trials, so many claims that they are unfair either to witnesses or defendants, that something in me thinks they should be more visible to the public (perhaps with anonymisation of the complainant), not overly protected.

There was, once, a lot of nervousness about what would happen in Parliament were televised, but I think Parliament is – slowly – regaining its place at the centre of national life because it can now be seen free on digital telly. A small class of political geeks actually watches debates; a not huge but significant audience watches major events like the budget speech or PMQs – many more people than ever read budget speeches in the past; and the work of committees is becoming much more important now that (like Senate hearings in the States) their work is on telly. Finally, news reporting of Parliament is much more immediate, and the speeches of backbenchers much more likely to have any impact, because clips can be shown in news programmes. The courts could make a similar return to the centre of our national life, and the public debate about criminal justice would slowly become better informed, if Parliament were to apply its own medicine to them. Not everyone would welcome a return to the Victorian days when barristers were stars and gruesome trials gripped the nation, but I would: a bit of tawdry prurience would be a price well worth paying for a more open and accountable justice system.

Finally: I’m not against their being consulted, but this is not something judges should decide. They do not own the courts, though they’re often treated as though they do.

2009-01-19T11:36:00+00:00Tags: , , , |