A Bill in the Queen’s Speech will, hopefully, speed up the process of letting some more sunlight into Northern Ireland’s rather musty justice system.
Measures to allow cameras in courts in England and Wales will be introduced during the course of the next Parliament. The Crime and Courts Bill will annul the ban on filming that currently exists.
Scotland has already taken steps in this direction. The new UK Supreme Court is televised, but as it was previously linked to Parliament (the ‘Law Lords’) it is somewhat different.
It’s not exactly revolutionary stuff — it’s likely that, initially at least, filming will be restricted to the judge’s comments, so it will probably be summing up and sentencing in criminal trials that will generally be broadcast.
There are few voices arguing, at this stage, in favour of the filming of witness testimony, or cross-examination. But I do hope that it won’t be too long before comments made by both judges and lawyers can be broadcast — which will greatly aid the ability of the media to cover both criminal and civil courts. Quite frankly, there is not enough coverage of important legal cases and developments.
Indirectly, I hope the Crime and Courts Bill will send a wake-up call to the system in Northern Ireland.
We lag behind in open justice and transparency measures. It would be a positive development if the Belfast Telegraph could broadcast court proceedings on its website, accompanied by serious analysis and comment.
So, why has there not been a full debate on filming in courts here? Why does the PSNI not fully implement the Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidelines on the release of images of suspects and defendants, in particular routinely post-conviction?
Or why does the Public Prosecution Service here not adopt similar protocols on publicity that have been in operation across the water since 2005?
It’s legitimate to ask why the criminal justice system should be opened up to greater transparency in the first place.
Quite simply, it’s important in any democracy that not only is justice done, but that justice is seen to be done. Greater public engagement and understanding of the legal system can only be a good thing. Confidence in the administration of justice is absolutely critical to acceptance of the rule of law (surely a key point, given Northern Ireland’s history?)
Deterrence, the prevention and detection of crime, reassurance of the public, understanding of sentencing decisions and, yes, understanding of the sentencing constraints on judges — there is a raft of reasons why greater openness matters and why we should be taking strides towards it.