Open justice to the box, urges Neuberger

“Lord Neuberger is probably the first member of the senior judiciary to weave together the many strands of justice in the internet age, and has produced a formidable, progressive and, crucially, practical manifesto for open justice in the 21st century.” 

So pronounces Guardian’s Law in an  almost gushing verdict on the Master of the Rolls’ lecture to the Judicial Studies Board last week.   

The eyecatcher  of  Neuberger’s speech is  the televising of court proceedings. But his concept of more open justice ranges much more widely,  over the perceived gap between Justice or the Law (not quite  a solecism ) and  how to avoid writing “ vanity” judgments and embrace instead “ crisp , short,” drafting.   He even discusses the  bete noire of  super-injunctions.  Goodness, he’s so accommodating that he seems like an intelligent layman at times; hardly a vested interest in sight. While his concept of Open Justice is hardly new, (implying institutional resistance perhaps?) his restatement of it is timely and comes across as requiring judges and lawyers to be clearer and more accessible. His embrace of new technology although tentative, shows he recognises the validity of pressure for greater judicial accountability.

  The path to televising the courts has been trodden before as the BBC report explains. A pilot in the Court of Appeal in 2004 was never shown publicly. The subsequent consultation ended predictably, with a fairly even division of opinion among a small number of respondents ( just over 200) and a look ahead to another consultation that never happened.  Not a lost cause exactly, but a project that was never gripped.

Neuberger has now given a boost to the cause – or will have done, if more than this blog,  the Guardian and  the BBC pick it up.  On admitting  the cameras ,  he comes near to saying, why not? And he supports tweeting in court ( cf MPs in the Commons chamber ).  While he is doubtful about televising criminal trials (a pity, despite the problem of some witnesses ) his doubts do not extend to criminal appeals.

The protocols for televising court proceedings would be complex and as Lord Phillips has pointed out expensive, at least by the quite modest standards of the Supreme Court budget.

Editorial control would be likely to remain vested in the courts. But on what basis might cases  be selected and who in real time would be responsible for editing?  If televising were to be any more than a visual record, commentary would  be essential, in a form perhaps similar to law reports which have all but disappeared from the press.  

While Neuberger’s examples of press distortions of cases are telling, you might nonetheless feel his cautious hopes for countering those distortions are naïve. After all, the televising of Parliament has done little for public confidence in MPs . Nevertheless in the digital age, I would assert his is a very proper aspiration. At the very least, televising would greatly widen access to full judgments and arguments which as far as I know remains notoriously difficult for lay persons.  At best, televising whether by narrowcasting  on the internet or in a special digital TV channel (the two platforms will shortly converge anyway), could act as a sharp spur to greater clarity  and public understanding.

Of these matters, let us hear more.

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