'The Murder Trial': Television cameras allowed into British courtroom for the first time for retrial of wife-killer Nat Fraser

The notorious case of wife killer Nat Fraser is the subject of a ground-breaking Channel 4 documentary

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The dramatic moment in which a man is convicted of arranging the murder of his wife and then disposing of her body will be broadcast on television next week.

It is the first time that cameras have been allowed into a British courtroom to film an entire case in a ground-breaking project which has taken nearly four years to bring to the screen.

A documentary crew working for Channel 4 followed the six-week retrial of Nat Fraser at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2012. Using six remotely controlled miniature cameras positioned around the courtroom, film-makers were able to achieve extraordinary close-ups of the defendant, judge, advocates and witnesses as the evidence in one of Scotland’s most notorious and baffling cases was played out.

The two-hour documentary, The Murder Trial, will be shown as some courts in England prepare to open their doors to fixed cameras in October. Screen tests have been going on at the Court of Appeal in London this summer, although the Lord Chief Justice has warned against Government plans to extend filming rights to crown courts, where cases are heard before a jury, because of concerns that it could prevent witnesses coming forward. Filming is already allowed in the Supreme Court.

Director Nick Holt, who won a Bafta for his 2010 documentary Between Life and Death, which followed patients in a brain injury unit, said it was time to reconsider the role of the television camera in the legal process.

“We talk a great deal about open justice but we have to have a debate about how open justice can be. There is a public gallery for a reason. You are tried by your peers, there in the jury box, and watched by the public gallery,” he said.

“We have a right to see this process which costs us an enormous amount of money and which we are very good at and very thorough at. There is nothing to hide, nothing shameful going on. The process of filming demystifies the legal process.”

Negotiations with the Scottish Court Service and the Lord President’s Office began in 2009. Before filming, all judges in Scotland were consulted, but shooting was postponed at the last minute because of legal concerns.

The Lord President, Lord Gill, has now ordered a halt on all filming applications in the wake of the Channel 4 film to review the policy of allowing cameras in.

During the trial, the jury, who are not shown, heard that Fraser – who continues to protest his innocence – boasted to a former friend that he had hired a hitman to kill his wife, burned her body and ground up her teeth so that she would never be found. But The Murder Trial, which combines interviews with witnesses, court staff, historic footage and behind-the-scenes shooting is a far cry from the plans for filming appeal courts in England.

From October, fixed cameras will be trained on senior judges as they reveal their rulings on points  of law.

In The Murder Trial the jury considers the disappearance of Arlene Fraser, 33, a mother of two, who vanished from her home in Elgin in 1998. Her body was never found. Nat Fraser, 54, was convicted in 2003 but the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Last year Scottish courts allowed the filming of sentencing remarks from Lord Bracadale – who presided over the Fraser retrial. It was only the second time this had happened. In 1996 a BBC Scotland crew filmed the sentencing of armed robbers.

Chairman of the Bar Council Maura McGowan QC said there were still concerns over giving greater access to film-makers. One fear is that it might lead to disturbances or grandstanding.

She said: “It is good for justice in the sense that the more the public understand what goes on, the better. But you would have to exercise real judgement in which is the right case to choose.”

Mr Holt said that the presence of cameras had not led to any noticeable change in behaviour at the trial: “The act of filming goes unnoticed. It is like going into Sainsbury’s where you are being filmed by CCTV. It doesn’t affect how you behave when you are in Sainsbury’s.”