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Broadcasting of Court Proceedings debate

8th February 2012

Jonathan Djanogly responds to a back bench MP's debate on the broadcasting of court proceedings.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on securing this timely debate. In an impressive and knowledgeable speech, he presented a view that is fairly close to that of the Government.

Open justice is a long-standing and fundamental principle of our legal system. Justice must be done as much as it must be seen to be done if it is to command public confidence. As my hon. Friend set out, the Master of the Rolls said last year:

“Public scrutiny of the courts is an essential means by which we ensure that judges do justice according to law, and thereby secure public confidence”.

Very few people have direct experience of court proceedings. In principle, our courts are open to all members of the public who wish to attend, but in practice very few people have the time or opportunity to observe what happens in our courts in person. For many, the criminal justice system is still seen as opaque, remote and difficult to understand. We need to make it a reality that our courts are open and accessible to as many people as are interested in seeing them work.

Media coverage is often the prime source for public understanding of the criminal justice system, and many people base their views of the courts on their portrayal on television or film. Those dramatised accounts inevitably do not give an entirely accurate portrayal of what happens in a court case. The Government and the judiciary are committed to improving the public’s understanding of the criminal justice system through increasing transparency. The more informed people are about the justice system, the more confidence they will have in it.

Our evidence shows that a key element of confidence in the criminal justice system is how fair the public believe it is. People want information that has not been spun about what happens to criminals and why. The majority of respondents to the Department for Constitutional Affairs consultation on broadcasting in courts in 2004 believed that broadcasting could increase understanding of court processes and make courts more accessible. That is why the Government believe that removing the current ban on filming in courts will improve public understanding of the justice system.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice announced last year that the Government plan to allow judgments and sentencing decisions in cases before the Court of Appeal, in both the criminal and civil divisions, to be broadcast. We intend to introduce legislation to give effect to those reforms as soon as parliamentary time allows, although I cannot, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon appreciates, pre-empt the Queen’s Speech. We are working very closely with the judiciary to take that work forward.

My hon. Friend made a case for the eventual full recording of all trials. That is not being reviewed at the moment, although I appreciate that he understands that a step-by-step approach, which was how he put it, will be required. Over a longer period, we expect to extend broadcasting of sentencing remarks to the Crown court, given a reasonable time after the introduction of broadcasting in the Court of Appeal.

All hon. Members will remember the media furore over the O. J. Simpson trial in the United States of America, and, more recently, the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor. My hon. Friend mentioned selected excerpts from the Knox case. The Government and the judiciary will not permit our courts to become show trials for media entertainment. We therefore have no current plans to allow the broadcasting of trials from the Crown courts, other than sentencing remarks.

Currently, the Criminal Justice Act 1925 prohibits anyone taking, or attempting to take, a photograph in any court except the Supreme Court. Furthermore, the Contempt of Court Act 1981 prohibits the use of a tape recorder, or other device, to record the audio of the court proceedings. Primary legislation, as my hon. Friend made clear, will be required to amend that legislation, and any proposals the Government bring forward will be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

With certain limited exceptions, most courts are open to the public, and journalists are allowed to be present in court and report what they see and hear, subject to reporting restrictions. At the end of last year, the Lord Chief Justice published new guidance for journalists wishing to use live text-based communications, including Twitter from mobile phones, in courtrooms during the conduct of a court case. Journalists and legal commentators no longer need to apply to use text-based devices to communicate from a court during a case, although the presiding judge always retains full discretion to prohibit such communications in the interests of justice.

Broadcasting of court proceedings is not without precedent in this country, as my hon. Friend made clear. We already allow broadcasting of live footage of the UK Supreme Court, and many people watched Julian Assange’s appeal to the Supreme Court last week. All hearings in the Supreme Court can be viewed online from anywhere around the world through the live stream on Sky’s website. Figures from the first three months of broadcasting from last summer show that that stream was seen 139,000 times, proving there is a public appetite for watching court proceedings. Limited televised excerpts from inquiries—my hon. Friend mentioned the Hutton and Leveson inquiries—have been broadcast, and have engaged the public as they have progressed.

We must remember, however, that the courts deal with very serious matters that can affect the liberty, livelihood and reputation of the parties involved. It will be vital that proper safeguards are introduced to ensure that the parties are treated fairly, and that their rights are respected. Our paramount concern in opening up our courts to broadcasting must remain the proper administration of justice.

We are very clear that television must not give offenders opportunities for theatrical public display. Offenders will not be allowed to be filmed, and we are clear that the judge will have the right to stop filming in the event of any demonstration or disruption in the courtroom. We will also not allow victims, witnesses or jurors to be filmed. Victims and witnesses will be protected, and we will not introduce any measures that would make their court experience even more difficult or make them even more reluctant to give evidence. We are seeking the views of victims’ groups on our proposals, and potential safeguards to ensure that the identities and rights of victims, witnesses and jurors are protected.

Mr Whittingdale: I accept, of course, that this will be a step-by-step process, but I hope that the Minister will not close his mind completely to the suggestion that eventually witnesses should be allowed to be televised. I know that it is not the same, but I chair televised hearings, one or two of which have achieved quite large audiences. I know that appearing before a Select Committee may be intimidating, but I do not think that it makes a great deal of difference if it is broadcast. The fact that witnesses are appearing in a parliamentary forum may be intimidating, as it might be in a court, but the cameras are very discreet, and people are largely unaware of them.

Mr Djanogly: Such an inquiry may be similar to a criminal trial, but often it is not. The circumstances and sensitivities may be different, as may the outcome.

Existing reporting restrictions on cases will continue to apply to broadcasting, and in all cases the judge will have the final say on whether proceedings should be broadcast. We are considering how to ensure that any use of the footage is appropriate to the dignity of the courts as part of the legislative framework. This will not happen overnight. The 2004 pilot of filming in the Court of Appeal, which was not for broadcast, demonstrated that it is possible for cameras to be allowed into courts without disrupting the administration of justice. However, before any plans can be agreed, we must take into account the views of a wide range of interests, and we will have discussions with the judiciary and others to ensure that we have considered the complex legal, practical and technical issues.

Allowing the broadcasting of judgments and sentencing remarks is one of a number of measures intended to open up the court process to the public, including to those who do not have the occasion or opportunity to attend court in person. The Government are committed to providing the public with information on the operation of public services in their area, and the justice system is no exception. We are taking significant steps to open up the courts to the public, and to get as much information as possible about their performance at local level into the public domain.

On 24 November last year, we published anonymised, individual-level sentencing data by court so that the public can see what sentences are being handed down in their local courts, and can compare different courts on a wide range of measures, such as timeliness. At the beginning of this year, on 12 January, we published performance data for individual courts that enable local communities to find out how their local court is performing on a range of measures. The data include, among other measures, information on case timeliness in criminal, civil and family courts, and the proportion of cracked and ineffective trials at the Crown court. That represents a significant step forward in keeping the public informed about how the courts are operating in their area. In May, we will go a step further and provide justice outcome information on police.uk. That will enable the public to see what happens after a crime is reported—police actions followed by justice outcomes—and will reinforce the link between crimes being committed and justice being delivered.

In addition to the new data we have published on court performance, the Government have taken other steps to provide the public with information on how the criminal justice system works. For example, our release on court-level sentencing data in October 2010 was made available in a user-friendly format on the “Making sense of criminal justice” microsite, and was significantly more popular than normal statistical releases. Crucially, the data were released alongside the award-winning “You be the Judge” tool, which aims to promote public understanding of the sentencing process. The Government believe that providing adequate contextual information to increase public understanding of the criminal justice system is key to making data meaningful to the public, and we plan to provide such information with every transparency-data release.

I believe that the crime and justice sector is at the vanguard of transparency across Whitehall, and good progress has been made to date. However, we are committed to making the justice system more transparent, and I am confident that we will continue to make good progress in this area. The Government believe that television has a key role to play in increasing public confidence, and that is why we plan to introduce broadcasting from courts. However, although it is important for justice to be seen to be done, it is more important that justice is done. The administration of justice remains our primary aim, and our proposals to permit broadcasting from courts will not be allowed to affect that in any way.

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