Leading article: Justice should be open to public view

The court is the power of the state at work. As such, it must be open to scrutiny
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The Independent Online

Before long the public will be able to watch on television as judges pass sentence on convicted criminals in Crown courts. The development is a welcome one. It will demystify the judicial process and build greater public confidence and familiarity with the legal system. In the digital age it makes no sense for public access to courts to be restricted by the physical geography of our court buildings. Justice can now be done in full and proper public view.

While progress, however, the changes are not enough by themselves. Cameras are only to be allowed in court to record judges' summing-up and the passing of sentence where a criminal is found guilty. The Government is right to proceed incrementally. But if the current moves are a success, the intention must be to extend public video access to other parts of a trial – the jury's verdict, the opening and closing statements of barristers and, eventually, even the cross-examination of witnesses. Put simply, the more of the legal process that can be conducted in public, the greater the credibility of the whole system.

Such a scheme has no shortage of detractors. Critics warn of lawyers, defendants and witnesses at best distracted, at worst playing to the public gallery. Given that broadcasters will inevitably concentrate on the most salacious and gruesome cases, there are also worries that high-profile trials might turn into US-style television spectacles, more akin to the hysteria of reality TV programmes than the serious business of the law.

Such concerns are valid. But the risks are being overplayed. Perhaps lawyers might, on occasion, be tempted to court public sympathy, but similar tactics are already used in wooing the jury. When it comes to defendants and witnesses, the sombre reality of a criminal court hardly encourages the self-promotion of reality TV. Public life might even be enriched by the measured display of rational argument that characterises the daily activities of our courts.

Indeed, all the evidence supports such a contention. The Supreme Court in Canada has been televised for more than 20 years without any noticeable debasement of the country's justice system. Even here in the UK, the Supreme Court has been televising its proceedings since last year without any suggestion that the quality of advocacy or debate has been dragged down. Similarly, the televising of the Leveson and Chilcott public inquiries, not to mention the broadcast of parliamentary select committees, has added more understanding than drama to public discourse.

In fact, televising court proceedings would bring England and Wales into line with many other countries, not least Scotland, where cameras have been allowed, under limited circumstances, for two decades. The televising of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi's appeal against his conviction for the Lockerbie bombing, for example, allowed ordinary viewers an insight into a case of overwhelming public interest.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, the same arguments being advanced against televising the judicial process were once deployed against the plan for cameras in Parliament – a move now widely considered an advance in accountability, rather than an erosion of gravitas.

Public broadcast will, of course, have to have some limits. Judges must unquestionably retain the right to turn the cameras off in sensitive cases, such as rape trials, where witnesses' or victims' interests might be jeopardised. But for all the caveats, the fundamental principle remains: the business of a court is the power of the state at work. As such, it should be open to public scrutiny whenever it can be. Justice must not merely be done; it must be seen to be done, and the more widely it is on view the better.