Closing system

Solemn sentencing is no circus as cameras enter English courts | British criminal justice

Almost 100 years after a ban on cameras in criminal courts was enshrined in law, the first broadcast from an English Crown court aired on Thursday and likely left many viewers wondering, “Why is this did it take so long?”

Resistance in the past has often been driven by fears that allowing cameras could turn the cases into the sort of media circus seen around high-profile US trials such as that of OJ Simpson or, although This is a civil case, the recent Johnny Depp vs. Amber A hearing libel suit.

But what viewers saw on Thursday was something quite different, with the cameras focused only on Judge Sarah Munro QC solemnly delivering her sentencing remarks in a manslaughter case.

Sky News, the BBC, ITN and PA were all granted permission to film outside the courts, and broadcasters showed Thursday’s footage live.

Before Munro made history, Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab said the decision would improve public understanding of the justice system, and anyone who has not witnessed a Crown court conviction in person. might have been surprised by what he saw.

Reports on sentencing by journalists are inevitably limited, but viewers would have had a glimpse of how judges balance aggravating and mitigating factors and are bound by sentencing guidelines – which often isn’t. not mentioned when there is outrage about a particular sentence.

Munro spoke for nearly 20 minutes before sentencing Ben Oliver, who has autism spectrum disorder, to a minimum life sentence of 10 years and eight months for manslaughter due to the reduced responsibility of his grandfather David Oliver.

She rated his level of responsibility as “at the very top of the medium level range” (the three levels being low, medium and high) and listed aggravating factors such as Oliver’s previous offense – he had been convicted of sexual offenses against a girl. – and the suffering he inflicted on his grandfather.

Mitigating factors included the ‘irreparable damage’ caused by abuse during Oliver’s upbringing and the fact that other family members discussed David Oliver’s murder over unproven sexual abuse allegations against him.

This was a far cry from the scenes often seen in televised trials in the United States. And with filming in Crown Courts being limited to sentencing remarks – and even then only when the judge agrees – there’s no threat that an episode like the glove won’t fit. to OJ Simpson on UK screens.

Some would like to see things go further in England and Wales, given that the other benefit raised by Raab is transparency.

Chris Daw QC, the author of Justice on Trial, said televising sentencing remarks was a good first step, but would open things up completely – with protections for witnesses and vulnerable defendants – to correct media inaccuracies but also to expose the underfunding of criminal justice. system.

“Where there are simply no lawyers to handle the case, they [viewers] could see the frustration of the judge, they could see the impact it has on the witnesses and on the victims, and I just feel like there would be more pressure from the public to do something about this topic,” he said. “Right now, I just don’t think the public realizes how completely broken the system is.”

Thursday’s small but significant change comes as transparency is reduced elsewhere. Introduced in 2015, the Single Judicial Procedure (SJP) – administrative decisions taken behind closed doors – accounts for more than 50% of cases coming before magistrates’ courts in England and Wales each year, with 535,000 SJP cases heard in 2020 .

Additionally, under the Judicial Review and Courts Act, which came into force this month, other legal proceedings are being taken out of public court to be dealt with administratively, in a move that critics say will leave the media unaware of the existence of a “substantial number of criminal cases” as they come to court.