TV Cameras Coming to English Criminal Courts

TV Cameras Coming to English Criminal Courts

LONDON — High-profile criminal cases in English and Welsh courts will be partially televised for the first time, the British Ministry of Justice said on Thursday, in a move that was welcomed by broadcasters but that drew caution from lawyers’ organizations.

The change is a limited one. Cameras will be present to record only judges’ sentencing remarks in crown courts, which handle more serious criminal offenses, including the Old Bailey, the main criminal court in London. Defendants, jurors, lawyers, victims and witnesses will remain strictly out of shot.

But it still represents a drastic cultural shift for English and Welsh criminal courts, which for decades have banned not only filming and still photography but even the making of sketches — leading British news outlets to rely on artists working from memory.

Sentences in murder, terrorism and sexual offenses, among other serious crimes, would be available to broadcasters and to the public on a dedicated website, the ministry said in a statement. It added that it would begin the legislative process for the change on Thursday, but that the exact schedule would depend on Parliament.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said he hoped the filming would make justice more accessible, and “a better understood thing.”

“Very often, we hear a story about a case, we think, ‘Why did the judge pass that sort of sentence?’” Mr. Buckland told British radio on Thursday. “Now in a direct way, in a modern way, we’ll be able to see in those high-profile cases exactly why a judge made a decision.”

Allowing cameras in courtrooms has long been debated among lawmakers, journalists and lawyers. Those who favor televising court cases consider it vital to open and transparent justice. Opponents argue that it distorts proceedings, and invades the privacy of victims, suspects, judges and prosecutors.

Many state trial and appeals courts in the United States permit cameras, and some federal courts have run pilot programs, though the Supreme Court has rejected the idea.

The justice systems in most European nations, including Germany and France, ban filming by the media in courtrooms. It can be authorized by a judge in Italian courtrooms and in some cases in Spain, where the trial of the Catalan independence leaders at the Supreme Court in 2019 was broadcast live. In France, some trials are filmed, but the recordings are not available to the media.

In Britain, filming has been authorized in the Supreme Court since it was created in 2009, and in some English and Welsh Court of Appeal cases since 2013. Some courts in Scotland, which has a separate legal system, have invited applications to televise some proceedings since 1992, though filming has been rare in practice.

Copies of sentences in English and Welsh criminal cases are available online, but they are often dozens of pages long and not easily accessible to the wider public. Under the new legislation, television and social media producers would most likely edit the soon-to-be-filmed remarks, which can last dozens of minutes, to fit shorter formats on various platforms.

Britain’s top broadcasters have lobbied for the introduction of cameras in courtrooms for years, calling the ban shameful and the reliance on court sketches ludicrous. They welcomed the proposed legislation on Thursday, with BBC’s director of news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, calling it “a momentous day for transparency in our justice system.”

Yet law experts have warned that context could be missed if the remarks were too heavily edited, and that judges could face threats if they became more public figures.

“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,” Amanda Pinto, the chairman of the Bar Council, which represents British lawyers, told the BBC.

British commentators also wondered on Thursday if the introduction of cameras would turn trials into sensational drama, citing the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles, which attracted live television audiences in the millions.

Mr. Buckland, the justice secretary, said in an interview with the British broadcaster TalkRadio that the filmed remarks would not amount to entertainment, but to information. He added that they would be available with a 10-second delay.

“The mission is to explain,” Mr. Buckland said.

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