Televising courts is the modern extension of visiting them, the president of the Supreme Court has said in a speech highlighting the importance of open justice.
Speaking in Hong Kong, Lord Neuberger said: ‘Open justice is an essential feature of the rule of law. In its most basic form, it means that court hearings take place in public and judges’ decisions are available to the public. If courts sit in private, judges cease to be properly accountable for their decisions, as the public do not know what the evidence and arguments were put before the judge, or why the judge reached a particular decision.’
He suggested judges will start to ‘get into bad habits’ if the public and the press are excluded from courts, and public confidence in them will diminish.
Open justice is not only about courts being open to visitors physically, he said, throwing his support behind televising proceedings. ‘There is a strong case for saying that they should be televised: that is merely the modern extension of enabling the public to enter the courts physically,’ he said.
Lessons ‘in how not to do it’, he suggested may have been learned from the OJ Simpson trial in America, but he said he found the filming of the Oscar Pistorius trial ‘impressive’.
Open justice, he said also demanded that judgements are provided to the public in a manner as ‘comprehensible as possible’.
The media, he said play an ‘essential’ role in ensuring open justice by reporting to the public what goes on in court and what judges and juries have decided, enabling comment and discussion.
‘If journalists cannot report on what goes on in court, and if journalists and indeed members of the public, cannot give their views on what goes on in court, that would undermine freedom of expression, another vital ingredient of a modern democratic society,’ said Neuberger.
While the media have the right to report fearlessly on what the courts are doing, journalists, he said, must not abuse the privileges accorded to them.
He accepted that journalists are bound to simplify judgements with a ‘degree of exaggeration, one-sidedness, even spin’ and that papers may criticise a judgement or campaign for a change in the law.
But he said ‘persuasion should be based on accuracy and truth rather than misreporting and propaganda’.
‘Inaccurate and unfair reporting of a judge’s decision in order to make a good story is an abuse of the freedom of expression accorded to the press and it undermines the rule of law,’ said Neuberger.
Elsewhere, he suggested the ‘astonishing developments’ in IT that enable information to be transmitted and received across the world or clandestinely recorded or misreported and doctored, may make it inevitable that the law on privacy and communications generally would need to be reformed.
‘It undermines the rule of law if laws are unenforceable. There is no doubt that these technological developments give rise to enormous challenges for people involved in the law and people involved in the media,’ he said.