The U.K. justice system, where judges in criminal cases still wear 18th century-style horsehair wigs and winged collars, will take a step toward U.S.-style legal dramas when cameras are allowed in court.
The judiciary is allowing English cases to be filmed for the first time outside of the Supreme Court starting in October, introducing a system that began in the U.S. in the early 1990s, when the O.J. Simpson murder trial captivated a global audience. The move, which comes after a decade of lobbying by British broadcasters, heralds an era of transparency in a profession steeped in tradition.
Proponents say it will improve access to a system where few court documents are available online and reporters are restricted in what they can write during criminal prosecutions. Others warn it could affect the actions of judges and lawyers who may play to the cameras.
“For opening up justice, it is a risk worth taking,” said Richard Moorhead, a professor of law and ethics at University College London. “Judges will pay a little more attention to public opinion than they once did.”
U.K. courts are already being filmed by broadcasters in test runs of how the technology affects judges, staff and litigants. A full roll-out of cameras in the U.K. Court of Appeal is scheduled to start in October, with access eventually extended to sentencing decisions in criminal courts, Justice Minister Helen Grant said in an e-mail.
In Court 71 of the 131-year-old Royal Courts of Justice in London, cameras used in the pilot program are clearly visible among wooden benches and bookcases. Unlike unwieldy television cameras that might be used in a studio, the cylindrical units placed on stands around the room are no larger than a soccer ball.
A technician operating the system said the television feed will have a minimum delay of 70 seconds to give them time to remove any footage that can’t be aired because of court procedure rules or broadcast regulations.
Media companies including British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, British Broadcasting Corp., ITV Plc and the U.K. Press Association will have access to the footage and cover the costs of the court equipment and broadcasting. Proceedings in the Supreme Court, the U.K.’s highest court, are already filmed.
“Although you have the right to go and sit in court, most people don’t actually have the opportunity to do so,” Simon Bucks, an associate editor at Sky News, said in an interview. “We have been campaigning along with the other broadcasters in Britain to get cameras into courts for about 10 years. We believe that cameras are the best way of extending the public gallery to the public who are unable to go to court.”
The government agreed to televise court proceedings to “improve transparency and bring greater public confidence and understanding of the criminal justice system,” Grant said.
In criminal trials, judges sometimes rule from the bench without writing them down in advance. They may need help to adjust to the presence of cameras and will be given training to help them prepare, Judge Igor Judge said in a speech in January.
“English judges are very thorough, they are meticulous, some are more flamboyant than others, but I don’t think it will affect the quality of justice,” George Maling, a lawyer at Enyo Law LLP in London, said in an interview. “You get a wide variety of personalities who are judges. Some of the blokes might start wearing make-up, who knows.”
U.S. courts, which have their roots in the British colonial system, have allowed cameras in some cases since the early 1990s. Initially there were concerns that cameras would interfere with the process of justice, some professors said.
The Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles, where the former professional football player was accused of killing his wife and a friend, was one of the first major cases to catch the public’s attention. The footage of Simpson’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, standing in front of the jury holding a glove saying “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was quoted and parodied on television shows including ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Simpson was acquitted in 1995.
After the trial, some lawyers and professors were concerned cameras could interfere with the justice system and that lawyers and judges would act differently.
“There were warnings that the sky would fall and we were told to beware because lawyers would start playing to the cameras,” said Christopher Daly, a journalism professor at Boston University.
Nearly twenty years later, those worries still linger.
During the U.S. trial of George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of murder last month, the media accused Judge Debra Nelson of not being fair to both sides.
“There were criticisms that the judge had some unusual rulings, particularly when she talked to Zimmerman directly and asked him whether he was going to testify,” Ronald Rotunda, a professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California, said.
“Sometimes the judges are show boaters so they appeal to the camera,” he said. “With cameras we can know that and see they are bad judges.”
Moorhead doesn’t see judges showing off becoming an issue in the U.K.
“I don’t think many judges would be likely to play up to the cameras,” he said. “They are more likely to alter their behavior to become more cautious, if anything. I think judges are already quite sensitive to the public image of their office, and this will make them more so.”
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