Cameras in court: a welcome development?

As the world closely watches the progress of the ongoing Oscar Pistorius murder trial, the the observant may have noted a certain significant addition to the courtroom: the camera.

South African media have been given permission to film throughout the highly-publicised trial, giving the nation live-streaming of the opening arguments for both prosecution and defence, as well the verdict, sentencing and some witness testimony.

The presence of cameras inside courtrooms has been a hotly debated topic in the UK for some time, and this case is sure to highlight the arguments for and against their use. Court of Appeal filming was permitted for the first time in October 2013, with the Lord Chief Justice welcoming the understanding and public confidence that would come with an increasingly open procedure.

With these moves currently still being fiercely debated by lawyers, academics and judges alike, it is an ideal time to review the sides of the contest once again…

FOR

1. There is clearly a case to be made for the increased transparency, openness and clarity that comes with the public’s ability to see into the intricate workings of the justice system. Our legal procedure is often criticised for being excessively complicated and shrouded in mystery.

With the advent of cameras in the courtroom, it could be argued that this criticism is alleviated: justice is available for all to access, and public oversight of the procedure is increased. Arguably, this could also lead to increased quality of justice – those who are aware they are being constantly observed may be compelled to perform to a higher standard.

This was a major factor in the South African judicial decision to allow cameras to film in the Pistorius trial: the high court judge, Dunstan Mlambo, pointed out that the South African justice system was still young and open filming would go a long way to removing ‘negative perceptions’ about the trial process.

2. In an age of digital technology, smartphones and instant access to images, it seems a little backward to deny the use of cameras in court. The public should expect the justice system to adapt and modernise with the times, and allowing video footage to be streamed and downloaded by others will serve to emphasise the on-going relevance of the law in everyday life.

3. Safety checks and protection of those within the judicial process can still take place: editing of footage can be used to ensure that vulnerable witness testimony is not given while the cameras are rolling, and other measures, such as voiceovers, screens or providing only sound without image, can protect the identity of those whom the court deems must remain anonymous.

AGAINST

1. Cui bono? The first question to ask about the introduction of cameras into courts is perhaps the most fundamental: who stands to gain from this move? Obviously there is an enhanced access to justice for the public, but who will really reap the (financial) benefits?

The answer is clear from the Pistorius trial: the media companies. The events surrounding Reeva Steenkamp’s death could not have been more likely to pique the public interest if they tried: a global celebrity and national hero tied up in the twisted world of money, fame, beauty and jealousy.

The South African public are, understandably, hooked. But it is the television companies streaming the footage who are being rewarded by the thousands tuning in. And this media interest is dangerous, because it has absolutely nothing to do with ensuring justice and fairness, and everything to do with commercial profits.

2. The presence of cameras can change the whole court environment, from the behaviour of the witness to the defendant’s demeanour and the jury’s decision.

With cameras present and public interest tuned in to every move within the court, the process becomes entertainment, not justice. An impartial jury may easily be affected by the knowledge that they are being monitored and judged for their decision by an overseeing public. A defendant may well play up to the cameras; a witness may be terrified by them. None of this is conductive to the uncovering of the truth and the handing down of an appropriate verdict.

3. Arguably, there is no need for this enhanced transparency in our current system. Defenders of the no-camera policy cite the open doors of the court as evidence that justice is public enough: the media can access the court and report back to the waiting world. Openness doesn’t necessarily have to mean the court grants everybody a constant virtual presence.

With these points in mind, the question of what lies ahead for the UK courts is still open for development. David Cameron, speaking after the first televised Court of Appeal case, supported the move towards ‘open justice’, so political backing for the expansion may not be hard to come by.

The question is what kind of justice system we actually want: a traditional, no-camera court with no opportunity for constant virtual observation – or a filmed procedure, with plenty of transparency but the possibility of disturbing the delicate wheels of justice?

Whichever decision is made, it will surely continue to be a hugely significant issue in the legal profession into the future.

Eloise Skinner recently graduated from New Hall College, Cambridge, with a First class degree in Law.