Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
More years have passed than I care to remember, but ITV would broadcast a television series called Crown Court made by Granada (one of the ITV companies). The programme was basically involved dramatic reconstructions of criminal trials which had taken place in the real Crown Court. It was very popular with viewers – as unsurprisingly these types of dramas tend to be – running for a total of 11 series (or seasons as our North American friends might say) from 1972 until 1984.
I’m going to say that I’m far too young to remember the original broadcasts and it was the repeats that I saw during the school lunch break when I would be at my recently retired great aunt’s house.
If readers are so minded, there is a link below to one of the episodes on the Youtube:
The reason why I’m recalling Crown Court is due to the fact that permission will soon be granted which will permit television cameras to be used in the real Crown Court in England and Wales. This is part of a push to increase public awareness of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
The Crown Court (Broadcasting and Recording) Order 2020 will soon be ratified by the UK Government which will permit the limited broadcasting of certain proceedings – primarily sentencing statements of judges.
Please see a link below to a press release issued by the UK Government in this regard:
I did not know until today that it has been over 100 years since cameras were allowed into an English criminal court – the trial for murder of Doctor Harvey Hawley Crippen in 1910 at the Old Bailey in London (or the Central Criminal Court).
The Crown Court is the location for trials which proceed on indictment before a jury (or as we would say in Scotland, it is a court of solemn procedure). In some respects, this court is a hybrid of the Scottish Sheriff Court and the High Court of Justiciary.
Overseas readers – those in North America particularly – will probably shake their heads in disbelief about this story. After all, both civil and criminal cases are regularly televised in that part of the world. What’s the fuss?
I must confess that I don’t really share the excitement about this development in the Crown Court. It’s not because I have any major objections to television broadcasts of trials – subject of course to safeguards being put in place for vulnerable witnesses and victims. As someone who principally deals with Scots Law, I just have a feeling of déjà vu. In Scotland, we have been here before and our English brethren, it seems, are left playing catch up.
Back in the 1990s, BBC Scotland made a ground-breaking television series called The Trial which consisted of 6 episodes looking at a particular aspect of Scottish criminal justice. Our library had a copy of the series and I would often show a particular episode – The Loan Path Murder – to my First Year law students. It was an excellent educational tool because it involved a real murder trial consisting of court-room footage (i.e. cross-examinations of the accused and the principal witnesses); and the defence and prosecuting counsel had an input (as well as the defence solicitor for the accused). The programme makers avoided sensationalism and the viewers got a realistic and measured insight into the world of Scots criminal law.
Over the last few decades, BBC Scotland has made further forays into the Scottish legal system (with varying success it has to be remarked). That said, in January 2020, the television station has just broadcast a programme called Murder Trial: The Disappearance of Margaret Fleming. Over two episodes. the background to a murder trial involving the disappearance of a vulnerable young woman is explored with contributions from Police Scotland, the Crown prosecutor, defence counsel and journalists who covered the story. All episodes are currently available on the BBC iPlayer.
A link to the trailer for the programme can be found below:
In any event, sentencing statements by Scottish judges in the High Court of Justiciary are regularly available on broadcast media and I often use this as learning resource for my students when trying to explain to them how the judges decide what sentence should be imposed on the now guilty party.
Even the UK Supreme Court has permitted cameras and no doubt many members of the public were gripped by the prorogation of the UK Parliament proceedings at Guildhall, London in September 2019.
I do want to finish on a positive note: anything that demystifies the criminal law (and the legal system more generally) is to be welcomed. The court room is still to be regarded as a serious place and, if programme makers behave sensibly and sensitively, there is no reason why this should be undermined. When I arrange visits to the High Court of Justiciary for my students, from time to time, I do remind them that court is not about entertainment and one of the ground rules that we go over is no filming or taking photographs while they are on the premises. There are limits to some things.
Links to the story about the announcement that TV cameras are to be permitted into certain Court Court proceedings can be found below on the Sky News website:
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 16 January 2020