Barristers hit back at Victims’ Commissioner’s claim cameras in court will help curb ‘aggressive’ cross-examination

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By Thomas Connelly on

Filming needs to be ‘handled with care and sensitivity’, warns Baroness Newlove

Baroness Newlove — background image credit: BBC

Members of the bar have hit back at claims that bringing cameras into courtrooms could help curb “aggressive barristers”.

According to Baroness Newlove, filming court proceedings “might change the behaviours of some of the key participants, such as aggressive barristers or defendants who show contempt for the justice process.” Continuing, Victims’ Commissioner Newlove told The Telegraph that the process needed to be “handled with care and sensitivity”, but could lead to an improvement in the justice system.

Responding to Newlove’s comments, anonymous barrister CrimeGirl suggested the Conservative peer had perhaps “been watching too many television dramas.” Dismissing the suggestion that barristers are “aggressive” towards witnesses or victims, she told Legal Cheek:

“Perpetuating this awful myth puts would-be complainants off giving statements and attending trial, thus by making comments such as these the Victims’ Commissioner only harms her own cause.”

As for the introduction of filming in courts, she warned that it could have a negative effect, with some “mistaking the process for Jeremy Kyle“. CrimeGirl, as she’s known on Twitter, continued:

“Any filming would need to be carefully thought out so as not to sensationalise what is already an emotionally charged and difficult process that deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and sensitivity.”

Max Hardy, a criminal barrister at London’s 9 Bedford Row, agreed. He told us there has been “a sea of change” in the way barristers cross-examine vulnerable witnesses over the last decade or so, thanks in part to the specialist training advocacy training advocates receive. Hardy continued:

“It is hard to see how cameras in court will tame barristers. If it’s supposed to shame them into mending their ways it rather overlooks the fact that they have a live audience of 12 members of the public actually in the room assessing their every utterance. The reality is that cases involving the most vulnerable witnesses will likely never be televised for the obvious reason that it is hard to conceive of a greater obstacle to a witness being put at their ease.”

Nine St John Street criminal barrister Jaime Hamilton was of a similar view. Citing the raft of measures already in place to ensure barristers conduct themselves appropriately in court, he told Legal Cheek:

“Effective management of the trial process by the judge, continued specialist training of advocates and ensuring suitably trained advocates undertake the cases are the way to maintain the courtroom as a place for the rigorous yet courteous and sensitive examination of witnesses.”

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Elsewhere in The Telegraph‘s piece, Newlove claimed allowing cameras into courtrooms will help “shine a light on our justice system”, but warned that a decision to do so or not “would need to be taken carefully and on a case by case basis.”

A Bar Council spokesperson told us:

“Barristers fully appreciate the importance of treating witnesses fairly in the course of carrying out their duty to prosecute and defend cases to the highest standards. For instance, over the last 18 months, volunteer barristers have been rolling out Advocacy and the Vulnerable training to thousands of criminal barristers, to ensure that all advocates understand how to appropriately question vulnerable individuals in the justice system. Feedback about the effectiveness of the training has been extremely positive, and we expect most of the criminal bar to be completely trained by the end of 2018.”

Newlove’s quasi-government role involves, among other things, promoting the interests of victims and witnesses. She was appointed to the position of victims’ commissioner in 2013 after her husband was beaten to death by a gang of youths in 2007 and became an outspoken campaigner against binge drinking.

Newlove’s comments aside, the government has already introduced TV cameras into a number of top courts as part of a growing push for transparency.

Last year, a pilot saw filming equipment installed at eight courts in England and Wales, including the Old Bailey. The test-run filmed the sentencing remarks made by judges, but the footage was never broadcast. Meanwhile, proceedings at the Court of Appeal have been filmed since 2013 and the Supreme Court since it was established in 2009.

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