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Cameras in Court – should the English courts learn from Pistorius’ trials?

Oscar Pistorius’ week long bail application ordeal last week quite rightly received a lot of media coverage.  It also puts into question whether plans to allow cameras in court are a good idea at all.

In England and Wales the debate over whether cameras should be allowed in court has run for many years and, in the Queen’s speech at the opening of parliament last year, it was announced that they would be allowed for certain Court of Appeal and Supreme Court hearings.  Last month it was announced that government plans to let cameras into criminal sentencing hearings.  The Crime and Courts Bill is currently going through parliament and broadcasts are due to start in October.

I have no idea how the South African legal system works.  However, the general principles of granting bail seem to be pretty similar to over here.  For the English position, here is the Bail Act 1976.  There is a general presumption that bail will be granted and look at schedule 1, paragraphs 2 and 9 for the conditions on which it will be refused.

To my mind, Pistorius’ bail hearing would have taken about an hour in England and various issues would have been addressed:  is he a flight risk?  Possibly, so let’s order him to attend a police station once a week.  He is wealthy and could disappear from the country?  Fine, order him to surrender his passport.  How strong is the evidence against him?  He has admitted to shooting his girlfriend but has put forward a defence already – the bail application is not a trial, give him bail.

I would suggest that one of the main reasons for it taking so long in South Africa was the intrusive media coverage.  I came across the picture at the top of this blog a while ago but thought it might be a bit too flippant.  It clearly isn’t given some of the pictures coming out from the Pistorius hearing.  A picture gallery from the Mirror is here.

It cannot be right or fair to put anybody into Pistorius’ position.  He was in the dock with dozens of photographers about a metre away from him.  He was obliged to endure that level of intrusiveness for a week whilst listening to a criminal court deciding whether he should be imprisoned with immediate effect.  And all of this was within about 48 hours of his girlfriend dying (however that may have come about).

If you are in any doubt, my view is that cameras should not be allowed into criminal courts for any reason.  I am happy to say that the Lord Chief Justice agrees with me as well.  Lord Judge has been quoted here as saying that he is ‘troubled by cameras swanning around court.’

This turns me to my area, civil cases.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I love my job, I love getting into court and I still find other cases and legal argument fascinating.  However, I am not about to put the kettle on, sit down and settle into watching a nice long Court of Appeal hearing.  And this is coming from a man who, given half a chance, will watch every session of a cricket test match.

This hasn’t slowed the judiciary down, though.  Have a look at the Supreme Court’s YouTube channel if you don’t believe me.  The fact that the most viewed video has only 2,000 views is probably a hint as to how popular it is.  It looks like the sneezing panda isn’t under pressure just yet…

The stated aim of cameras in court is to encourage ‘greater public engagement and understanding of our legal system’.  How broadcasting the heaviest, most legal argument based court hearings can engage the public I do not know.  Almost by definition no evidence is heard and no real issues of fact are wrestled with in the Court of Appeal.  It is a panel of highly intelligent judges slugging it out in an intellectual battle with the parties’ legal representatives.  It’s hardly an easy introduction to the law.

That said, I don’t have any conceptual issue with cameras in the appellate courts.  In your average Court of Appeal case the judges and legal representatives are too busy arguing with one another to be put off by any third parties present.  Similarly, whilst I would prefer not to be filmed at work, I am sure I would get over it.  On the Bar Vocational Course we were filmed at pretty much every lesson and, to be honest, you quite quickly forget that the camera is even there.  I am sure that would be the same in working life.

So, cameras in court – a good idea or not?  The get out, lawyerly answer could be that it depends on the court.  However, I would go further and say that cameras have no place in the courtroom if there is any risk that the media circus caused by Pistorius’ bail hearing could happen at any point in the future.  Furthermore, if you want to settle into a nice juicy court of appeal hearing on TV, go for it.  I’ll be YouTubing goats screaming; a far more productive way to spend a day.

Mark Baldwin