Last month, Gavin Hughes, sitting in the public gallery of Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court, found himself in the dock after a police officer witnessed him taking a photograph of a defendant in the court using his mobile phone. He was brought before the judge and fined £250 for contempt of court.
It is an offence, liable to a fine of up to £1,000, to take a photograph in court. Indeed, the statutory ban goes further. Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 makes it an offence “to take or attempt to take in any court any photograph or, with a view to publication, to make or attempt to make in any court any portrait or sketch of a judge, juror, witness or a party to any proceedings, whether civil or criminal. Furthermore, it is an offence to publish any photograph, portrait or sketch which has been taken or made in contravention of the provisions.”
In R v Loveridge, Lee and Loveridge (2001), the act was held to apply not just to still photography but the use of video cameras as well. In that instance, the police used a video camera to film the defendants in a magistrates’ court and subsequently used the film for face mapping. It was held that although when the 1925 act was passed video cameras had not been contemplated, it should be applied so as to take into account the modern developments in photography. While Hughes’s case may serve as an amusing anecdote – (reportedly, when facing the contempt charge he apologised and explained that “I hadn’t seen my friend for a while, so I took a photo of him for myself and to show his wife”) – it does reopen the long-standing debate about allowing television cameras in court.
In Scotland, cameras have been permitted since the early Nineties under strict guidelines, although no trials have been televised. In the US, the media are often permitted to film trials – the trials of Louise Woodward and OJ Simpson even made their way to British television screens. A number of other countries have experimented successfully with televising court proceedings and in Italy, major Mafia trials have been televised.
US-style coverage is often regarded as reducing serious trials to cheap entertainment. Other possible dangers identified are that lawyers and witnesses would be distracted by the cameras and their behaviour altered, and that jurors who watched the nightly news coverage may have their recollections of the evidence confused by selective editing. However, with the developments in technology, the presence of cameras in court need not be intrusive and can go largely unnoticed. Televising those cases heard by judge only, in appeal courts for example, also removes the risk of interfering with juries’ consideration of cases.
The benefits are wider dissemination of information to benefit public understanding and an open and accessible system.
The blanket ban that has stood since 1925 contravenes the concept of open justice and fails to take into account that television is now relied on as the source of much information. While the courts are open to Joe Public who can attend in person and see for himself the workings of the system, this is not a realistic option for many. Safeguards can and must be put into place in order to protect jurors, witnesses and innocent victims, and the judge would retain the ultimate discretion of excluding cameras where it was clearly in the interests of justice to do so.
Earlier this year, the Lord Chancellor opened the way for a pilot scheme to allow television cameras into the Court of Appeal. In the modern day, both technology and legal jurisprudence have moved on significantly from the days when it was illegal to report anything that went on in the courts. It is time for the strict ban contained within Section 41 to be lifted.
Monica Bhogal is a solicitor in the media and entertainment department at Charles Russell
by Monica Bhogal