Cameras in court throw us in at the deep end before we’re ready

Without a more sophisticated knowledge of the law, a casual viewer will inevitably filter what they see through the biases they already harbour.

The Court of Appeal is to be televised for the first time now that a ban on cameras in courts in England and Wales has been lifted.

High-profile media organisations have been lobbying for such a move for some time and the first broadcast has already been made from the Royal Courts of Justice.

There is no question that the justice system ought to be public. That necessarily means that it ought to be as publicly accessible and visible as possible. Indeed, this is an aim that the justice system itself should actively pursue by taking measures to enable as many people as possible to gain access to the system’s operations.

Televising court proceedings is one important step in that direction for the obvious reason that the justice system now potentially reaches a much wider audience. That said, it’s unlikely that daytime television producers should be losing any sleep over losing viewers. Audience figures are generally low elsewhere.

It is commendable that the televising of trials is being introduced very carefully. It is wise to restrict it initially to appellate proceedings, which resist being sensationalised much more than first-instance court hearings. I am also not particularly concerned that bringing the Court of Appeal in people’s living rooms will result in a lack of respect. In fact, people may well respect courts more, if they can see with their very eyes that courts are serious and fair.

There are, however, some concerns as to whether televising trials can satisfy the principle of publicity. Some hope that direct access to proceedings will unclutter people’s perception of the justice system not least by cutting out the press and its various biases as the middleman for delivering information to the public about what goes on within their walls. The idea seems to be that if the viewer has first-hand experience of the goings-on in court, they will also form an unbiased view on what is being discussed.

But can this really be true? Proceedings in the Court of Appeal in particular can revolve around extremely complex technical issues, which are impossible to grasp properly without an advanced understanding of the law and legal method. Whether it is a good or a bad thing that law can be so difficult to grasp is an important but separate question. The point is that, without a more sophisticated knowledge of the law, a casual viewer will inevitably filter what they see through the biases they already harbour in a way that distorts the meaning of what it is in fact going on in the courtroom. Imagine, for example, how a sentencing appeal which is upheld for good reasons can easily be misunderstood and how this can trigger disagreements for all the wrong reasons.

For justice to be public it needs to be more than just visible. It is necessary that the justice system communicate its operations to the public in an understandable and undistorted way. If justice is to be open, then people should be given the chance to fully understand what the legal issues really are in each case, what exactly the courts have decided when they deliver a ruling, why they reached the decision and what the alternatives were The public also deserves to know what the future ramifications of their decision will be.

If it is bias that we’re trying to eliminate, throwing people in at the deep end of the justice system is not the solution. Information about the law must be properly edited and communicated for it to be of any value and for it to inform political dialogue without the risk of legal populism. But instead of leaving this exclusively to the press or commentators in the blogosphere, it should be done by accountable public officials.

Emmanuel Melissaris does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Royal Courts of Justice. (Photo: Getty)
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.