Remote access to courts likely to take “one step back” confirms Lord Chief Justice

Scotland’s judges, advocates, Queen’s Counsel and solicitors at an event in Edinburgh.

Thursday 19 November 2020, 1PM.

By Ian Murray and Bill Heaney

Despite the strides made around remote access to court hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic, the justice system is likely to take “one step back”, England’s  Lord Chief Justice has confirmed.

Speaking to the Society of Editors’ (SoE) Executive Director Ian Murray as part of the Society’s second In Discussion With…series of keynote talks, Lord Burnett of Maldon said that while he was “an enthusiast for open justice” careful consideration needed to be given before enabling extensive remote access to hearings moving forward.

He said: “I am a keen supporter and enthusiast of open justice and I have long thought that the presence of not only the public but also the press in court hearings – not only high profile and controversial court hearings – is important for not only maintaining the integrity of the system but also public confidence in the system.

“We have taken three steps forward during the last seven months because we have had to and we will probably take one step back. In respect of everything that has been going on during Covid, we are constantly learning about what works and what doesn’t work and what the difficulties and pitfalls are of some things that are being done at the moment.”

Scotland, however, has an entirely different in dependent legal system and journalists who specialise in covering Scottish courts – there are not many left because of  redundancies, retirements and deaths  – are waiting anxiously to discover what will happen when the Covid-19 pandemic is finally over and the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates have had time to plan a route forward.

The events of the last seven months had made the physical attendance of everybody in the courts more difficult, Lord Burnett said, and a longstanding programme spearheaded by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) existed before Covid to develop better online and video technology for the courts.

Detailed work had been going on for a number of years in England on how best to sustain open justice in that context, Burnett acknowledged, but careful consideration must also be given to the dangers of enabling extensive remote access to hearings.

He said: “I am pretty confident that there will be developments but they need to be thought through very carefully. One of the things that everybody is conscious of is that if one has extensive remote access to hearings then the judge is not in a very good position to control what people are doing and what they’re capable of doing with what they’re seeing. There have been glitches were, contrary to the rules, recordings have been made and they have been circulated. That is something that we have to be very, very careful with.”

Lord Burnett, Lord Chief Justice, England an Wales.

Lord Burnett’s discussion, titled ‘The Law and the Media: Maintaining Justice” took place as part of the Society’s Virtual Conference 2020 and also saw him discuss cameras in court and the challenges posed by social media and protecting fair trials.

Appointed to the position of Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in October 2017, Burnett said that similar considerations needed to be taken into account in relation to cameras in court as with the introduction of full video hearings.

Alongside the practical challenges of getting cameras into courts amid the ongoing Covid restrictions,  the involvement of the press in both and the limited recording and broadcasting of proceedings that was available to date was “designed to inform and improve proper reporting of what is going on”, he said. While it was hoped that some sentencing remarks could be recorded and broadcast in the months ahead it “will be important to see how that goes” he confirmed.

In respect of full video access he added: “I always remind myself that legal proceedings are not and, never should be, entertainment. They are also proceedings in which many of the participants are under an enormous amount of strain and pressure and so the recording and broadcasting of witness evidence for example is something that I have always been very cautious of because I am conscious of the pressure that many witnesses are under irrespective of what proceedings they are engaged in.”

The full In Discussion With…interview with the Lord Chief Justice is available on the Society of Editors website from 12 Noon on Thursday 19 November 2020. Details of all the Society’s remaining conference talks and debates alongside how to register for the free events are available here.

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