School of Athens discusses public access to legal trials

The School of Athens is a pupil led academic society that challenges Sedbergh Students to present and defend their thoughts in a supportive group of peers. More information is available on our School Societies.

Based on a recent experience seeing a trial in action Jamie felt inspired to discuss the issue of public access to legal trials with the School of Athens. Below is the edited transcript of the discussion led by Jamie.

How much access should the public have to legal trials in the UK?

Long before the murder trial of Dr. John Crippen and his accomplice, Mrs. Ethel Lee Neve, it has been possible for the public to attend trials in the UK at all types of court, civil courts, criminal court’s, appeal courts. However, people have not been able to attend all trials. Once portable cameras were invented, journalists began trying to take photos secretly during trials of public interest, which they would then print in the newspaper. The courts found this disruptive to their work and so in 1925, all recording of trials and the UK was banned.

The judge in each case decides how a hearing is held, including whether and how people can observe it if they think it’s necessary for people for the proper administration of justice. A judge can decide to hold a hearing in private with no observers allowed. You cannot record broadcast or take photos of any hearing no matter how you’re observing it. Some courts stream some or all of their hearings online for people to watch. These include the Supreme Court and some appeal courts, but not the criminal court.

I’m sure a few of you’ll recognize that the USA seems to stream a lot more of their cases than the UK and there is a strong history of celebrity court cases being broadcast on television. There are two ways of looking at this. Are they opening up their judicial system to their public or are they trying to commercialize it? For what reasons might the public want access to [celebrity] court trials? What points could be made to argue for the public having less access? Should we take away the right every UK citizen to attend justice being served? Overall, how much access should the public have? The final aspect that I want to highlight is the actual passing down of the sentence; where people don’t go to the actual trial, but attend any court that is giving a sentence.

I was lucky enough to go for work experience at Newcastle’s high court. I worked with a barrister who specializes in criminal law. I was able to go onto a manslaughter case – actually it was murder, but they were able to bring it [the charge] down. It was a one punch kill. I asked them, am I allowed in to watch the sentencing? The barrister explained that I am and that it is every UK citizen’s, right – and so I did. I went in and it really made me wonder, should this be allowed? Should anyone be able to come and watch someone’s life be absolutely destroyed? I was there, I was watching his family. Some of them were happy for the defendant, it was apparently a good sentence for him. I wouldn’t say it was a good sentence for anyone in general, having that on your record, but it was a good sentence for him. But I also saw the family of the person who he killed and they looked distraught. Should anyone be able to see this family in that position? Should we have a right to see them when they’re so vulnerable?

Discussion and Question Highlights

Higher-level crimes; murder, rape, arson, et cetera. are things that affect society as a whole. But, once we see the perpetrator being sentenced, people feel safe leaving their houses. Maybe not too safe, but safer than they did before. This really does let people see justice being served and it is helpful.

So in the UK you can’t record, but you can attend the trial. So, surely just recording is the same as having your right to be in that trial?

Do you think it should be safe spaces for example for people with a mental illnesses or cases involving children? In the court they really go into these kinds of sickness and I think this is quite private. Do you think these kind of cases should be offered to the public to watch?

Should we take away the right of a UK citizen to be able to see justice being served? I mean if you ask me, it goes back to like the Machiavellian times when people would be whipped and tortured in the street. It’s a way of showing justice being served. It’s also kind of a scare factor. You see them walking in with their bag. They know they’re going to jail. They know they’re not leaving that courtroom and going back to their family house, they’re going straight into a holding cell then to a police van and then to jail.

In the case of celebrity trials, there was the recent case with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. This was a serious trial of domestic abuse. Obviously Johnny Depp has a bigger fan base and so the majority of people were on his side. Who was right and who was wrong? It’s not our choice to say and to decide. He won and maybe he was right, but still, in the end she [Amber Heard] was trying to say something. The publicity that was created was a toxic and also a very dangerous thing. Now she can never go out without getting massive hate. The hate on the internet that was displayed against this woman was not normal.

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