Lawyers urge televising of court proceedings: Bar Council condemns 'absurd' ban after Scottish experiment

LAWYERS urged the Government yesterday to lift the ban on televising courts in England and Wales, after a criminal trial was screened for the first time in Scotland.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said it was 'absurd' that viewers north of the border could see how the courts worked, while people in England and Wales remained 'in the dark'.

Jonathan Caplan QC, who chaired a Bar Council committee that recommended pilot schemes to televise court proceedings, said that ministers should introduce legislation to amend the Criminal Justice Act 1925, which bans cameras from courts.

'Some 70 per cent of people rely on television as their prime source of information and yet they are denied the opportunity to see how the courts work by an Act that was introduced before commercial televison was even thought of,' he said. 'People in North Berwick, near Edinburgh, can now see, quickly and easily, how the judicial system works, while people in Berwick-upon- Tweed, just south of the border, cannot.' Live broadcasts of cases such as the appeals of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four would 'immeasurably boost public confidence in the legal system. Justice should be seen to be done,' he added.

Scotland, where courts are not covered by the 1925 Act, took the lead in televising trials two years ago when Lord Hope, the most senior judge, granted documentary-makers the right to film court proceedings. In February, Norman MacLeod QC, Glasgow's Sheriff Principal, gave the BBC permission to film inside the city's Sheriff Court.

Cameras, concealed in wooden 'hides', recorded the trial of Philip Gorman, who was charged with stealing a coach from Buchanan Street bus station in the city. The Focal Point documentary broadcast on Thursday showed Gorman, who was jailed for 12 months, lawyers, police and the presiding judge, Sheriff Brian Lockhart, listening to witness and medical evidence.

The 15-strong jury appeared as a blur because two members did not want to be identified.

Kenneth Pritchard, secretary of the Law Society of Scotland, said: 'If cameras do not cause offence to the litigants and there is no danger of prejudice to proceedings or risk to vulnerable witnesses, I do not see any reason why important cases could not be seen as they unfold,' he said.

Although Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, has indicated support for televising appeal hearings, all attempts to change the law in England and Wales have failed. Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor's Office was 'watching closely' the Scottish experience.