This introduction to each episode of the popular American TV programme “The People’s Court” lets audiences know that they are viewing reality. Or at least a version of reality. A legitimate judge presides over legitimate cases, and the verdicts are legally binding. First aired in 1981, the show is still going strong. It may soon have competition on this side of the Atlantic, and the line between reality TV and plain legal reality may become worryingly blurred.
A new government scheme proposes to allow procedures in crown courts in England and Wales to be televised. As of this coming October, it will be permitted for broadcasters to film proceedings on the Court of Appeal. The official reason for this new measure is “improving the transparency and accountability of the courts”. On paper this may appear laudable, but if the reality TV explosion of the 21st century has taught us anything, it is surely that pointing a camera at the general public is the one way to ensure they do not act naturally. On a game show the stakes are low and the outcomes are spurious. But in a court of law, society’s great leveller, surely we should aspire to something better?
Damien Green, the UK Justice Minster, sees no problem with the new arrangements:
“We believe televising court proceedings will help improve transparency and bring greater public confidence and understanding of the criminal justice system. We are working with broadcasters to ensure that any costs from broadcasting are not met from the public purse”
As taxpayers contributing to this public purse, we are all entitled to ask if this is the best use of our money. Will TV coverage really shed more light on legal proceedings? Or is it fair to say that the minutiae of a courtroom exchange will escape many viewers? With the greatest of respect to Joe Public, if complex legal proceedings can be judged from a distance by people with absolutely no legal training and only a passing interest in the case, one might suggest that the judgment or the proceedings are flawed. So what might this lead to? Might we see a “dumbing down” of proceedings or terminology to enable legal professionals to play to their audience? Given that crown courts deal with such cases as murder and rape, we can only hope not.
The Scottish legal system, which operates separately, has allowed cameras to be used in the courtroom since 1992 provided all participants give their consent. But recent events have led to a rethink. Earlier this month Channel 4 screened “The Murder Trial”, a documentary telling the story of the retrial of a high profile case including extensive courtroom footage as well as interviews and archive footage. When the programme aired #themurdertrial was trending on Twitter within the hour. Viewers tweeted their opinions of witnesses in the manner of talent show judges, and perhaps this is the most insidious problem we face. As we now have a culture in which viewers believe they have the right to “vote off” their least favourite TV stars, could we find ourselves sliding towards a situation where officers of the court need to pander to uninformed public opinion?
Brian Gill, Scotland’s most senior judge, reacted to this TV screening with admirable speed by suspending all courtroom filming pending a policy review. With this in mind it seems remarkable that filming is set to begin in England and Wales.
EVS Translations supports legal clients with precision and professionalism at all times, and in all matters. We welcome any move towards transparency but we cherish the integrity of the legal system and are wary of reality TV theatrics taking the place of plain truth. We believe the “People’s Court” is already in session every day at locations all around the country, each with a select audience of twelve. We can only hope that these juries will never be replaced by a game show vote.