Cameras in court: Openness is a means, not an end

by scotslawstudent

Cameras in court is one of the prenennial issues that keeps coming back into the news. The primary argument seems to be that they are a necessary element to provide a democratic nation with open courts. Another, slightly dodgy, argument is that courts need to be modern.

The problem with that is defending a decision to be open solely on the basis of openness slightly misses the point. Openness is a noble principle for public bodies but it is not a particularly useful end in itself, if it was clothes and curtains would be illegal. The idea of making things open is that it will make things better through the increased amount of oversight rather than a direct connection of openness to quality. That’s putting the cart before the horse. Openness is a means, not an end.

Saying that you should modernise things because they can be modernised is an even worse situation for any system to be in and you end up with examples like the NHS hit and miss database systems (some are good, some are massive failures). The advantages of doing modernisation right are numerous but you do it for the advantages, not the modernisation.

The advantages that come from openness are huge, it’s necessary for people who are expected to obey the edicts of courts to generally trust that the people in the court are not going to put on a black cap and send them down for funsies and so justice needs to be seen to be done. Also openness is one of the biggest cures for corruption (up to a point, if you get to the point where “everyone knows” about corrupt officials openness is the least of your worries) and this is a good thing, you should be against corruption in any legal system.

That means that I don’t think promoters of the move really get to say that court TV will make the court system work better than it does now. We need openness in the court for several reasons but whether that is in the form of public rights of access or in published judicial decisions or in a live TV camera in every court is another matter entirely. Whether the rigmarole of setting up broadcast feeds from inside courtrooms (commentators from the US have found this creates a substantial delay) is worth the chance that,

  1. something will be done wrongly,
  2. someone will see,
  3. recognise the mistake and
  4. do something about it

or

  1. someone will not attempt to do something wrong that they would have done on the existing audio recording but will not because of the camera recording them,

is something that would require quite careful research to answer.

Things don’t get better just because you can watch them on TV nor is being able to watch it on TV what makes it good, just look at Big Brother.

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