The cases for and against televising Irish justice

Mon, Nov 5, 2012, 00:00

The arguments for and against TV cameras in court are well rehearsed. Some argue the televising of trials would play a role in educating the public on the Irish legal system; that it would promote the constitutional commitment that justice be administered in public, and that justice is seen to be done. Others feel trials would be sensationalised by selective editing.

Chairman of the Bar Council of Ireland David Nolan SC believes the televising of trials would boost public access to the legal process and educate people on the legal system as long as certain controls are put in place.

“It cannot simply be the case that we stick cameras in every court in the land and TV editors get to decide what should be shown. It’s about members of the public seeing how justice is carried out and how the Constitution protects the system so certain control measures would have to be in place.

“You’d have to ensure certain types of cases aren’t televised. You don’t want sensationalist situations in certain criminal trials and cases such as rape. I think the judge should have the discretion in each case to decide if it would be appropriate to allow cameras in.

“Justice should be administered in public and TV is a public medium now. There is a mystique about what happens in courtrooms and this is not good for Irish society. There are even some public representatives that aren’t entirely sure what goes on in court.”

The apprehension that lawyers would play up to the cameras is unfounded, Nolan says.

“They will be aware of them for a short period but then they will ignore them. We could get around it easily though by having static cameras in court and not focusing on the barristers. At the end of the day, the reason for having cameras in court is not for the benefit of barristers or judges. They would be there for the general public.”

Arthur Cox partner Andy Lenny believes the televising of trials is not necessary to educate people, as justice is already administered in public.

“Every day, with the exception of court vacations, justice is being administered around the country in various courtrooms. Anyone can go along and see how justice is delivered. In this context, I don’t think it’s necessary for TV cameras to be put in courtrooms.”

In fact, the televising of trials could have the opposite effect, he says, with members of the public only seeing certain sides to the trial, due to programmes being heavily edited. “Look at what has happened in the US with the likes of OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson’s doctor Conrad Murray – trials can be sensationalised through selective editing,” he said.

There are also those who argue that people, whether defendants, witnesses, barristers, solicitors or jury members may play up to the cameras.

“I can’t see any significant upside to cameras being in court but I can see a downside, especially for witnesses and family members involved in civil cases.”

Solicitor Claire Callanan, a partner in the litigation and dispute resolution department at Beauchamps, believes the televising of trials would not be helpful for parties in terms of moving on from litigation.

“It [the courtroom] is a stressful venue, the results are stressful for at least one of the parties, and it cannot help any ultimate resolution in real-life terms if the event is constantly available on YouTube to rub salt in wounds,” she says.

“My personal view is that there is a danger that, in an age where reality TV programmes dominate the television viewing schedules; court broadcasts (if permitted) would serve no purpose other than ‘entertainment’, even if packaged as having an educational motive,” her colleague Mark Heslin says.

Different parties perform essential roles in cases which proceed before the courts – solicitors and barristers try to present their client’s case in the most effective manner possible while also owing duties: officers of the court try to ensure that the court is not mislead, and judges have a role to do justice to the case, with regard to the evidence before him or her, according to Heslin.

“In my view, there is a danger that television coverage would focus, not on the roles these individuals perform and, instead, on them as individuals/ personalities. The personalities and styles of those who work in the courts are not relevant, yet there is a danger that coverage would focus on the most ‘sensational’ cases and the most ‘colourful’ individuals.”

Heslin believes the televising of trials would not play a huge role in educating the public on the Irish legal system, given the comprehensive reportage of court proceedings in the national and regional press.

“The national broadcaster routinely carries items about the most high-profile cases of the day, and there can be few individuals who own a television who do not already have at least a broad understanding of what a court trial entails, given the multitude of courtroom dramas from the UK and US.”