Analysis: Court on TV could breathe new life into dusty legal world

JUSTICE must be seen to be done. That portentous saying means much more now, in an age of mass communication, than before. To televise or not to televise?

As part of my work I speak to groups of people: retirement clubs, charities, voluntary organisations, school students. Everyone has an opinion about the law, but few have been in a court – usually as an inconvenienced juror or witness, never wishing to return.

The idea of televised courts is not new. It was done more than a decade before, showing sundry cases in Glasgow Sheriff Court. The project was interesting rather than exciting, and reflected the reality of our criminal courts – personal tragedy dressed up as mundanity.

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I’ve spent 25 years explaining the law on radio and TV phone-ins, the public are both intrigued and worried by the law. They understand that it informs their conduct and that of their neighbour. But that is some distance from being comfortable going to court, sitting in public benches before a bewigged judge, having been searched and watched by police and court officials, often seated next to menacing supporters of heavy-duty neds on trial.

There are concerns expressed that televising cases will change the odds, witnesses will be reluctant to be recognised, not speak up, it is unfair to accused to be identified in front of millions when they could be innocent, and bring undeserved fame to criminals. Some lawyers would feel circumscribed or exposed – its not what they signed up for.

To me, there is a wider perspective. Having spent my professional life in the media, I firmly believe that publicity is an oxygen. It will allow the law and legal system to breathe. How much better an appreciation of the failings, personalities and humanity of our politicians has televising Parliament given us? Defence advocates, prosecutors, judges and, yes, juries, are all accountable. The law is FOR something, it and the courts don’t exist in a vacuum, or in that dreaded ivory tower that lawyers are labelled as inhabiting.

Austin Lafferty is President-elect of the Law Society of Scotland but is writing in a personal capacity