TV to broadcast court judgements

By Alex Stevenson and Phil Scullion
Television cameras will be allowed into courtrooms to broadcast the sentencing of criminals for the first time ever.

Justice secretary Ken Clarke's decision has triggered a debate about whether the shift will cheapen or improve the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

Initially broadcasters will be allowed to film judges' summary remarks at the court of appeal, with the possibility of expanding to the crown court later.

Victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors will not be filmed, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.

"The government and judiciary are determined to improve transparency and public understanding of court through allowing court broadcasting," Mr Clarke said.

"We believe television has a role in increasing public confidence in the justice system."

In an article for the Guardian earlier, he made the link between the decision and the recent riots clear.

"I could draw the conclusion that in the main, the judges have probably been getting it about right – but, of course, only those in court know the full facts of each case," the justice secretary wrote.

He added: "What the riots really illustrate is the need to make sentencing and other areas of the judicial system more transparent so that the public can understand the decisions that have been reached."

Broadcasters have welcomed the prospect of being able to cover sentencing. Sky News' head of news John Ryley has already written to Mr Clarke, pointing out that his channel's video feed from the supreme court attracts 90,000 visitors a day.

"The public is unsurprisingly confused by the discrepancies in some of the sentences handed down to those involved in the rioting and looting," Press Gazette quoted his letter as saying.

"I believe that if television cameras were allowed to broadcast the remarks made by judges when they pass sentence, it would go a long way to making the process more transparent and would dramatically improve public confidence in the system."

The change will form part of the sweeping review of government policy ordered by David Cameron in the wake of the disorder seen in London and England's other major cities in August.

The MoJ is opening up information about the performance of courts on an unprecedented level as part of the coalition's broader transparency drive.

Court-by-court statistics for the time taken for cases to be processed, details on how many trials are ineffective and anonymised data on the sentences given at each case heard at local courts will all be released.

The prime minister had claimed the riots indicated Britain had suffered a "slow-motion moral collapse" in recent years.

Mr Clarke appeared to undermine that argument by pointing out that "the hardcore of the rioters were known criminals".

He wrote that three-quarters of those aged over 18 who were charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction.

"That is the legacy of a broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful," the justice secretary argued.

"In my view, the riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes – individuals and families familiar with the justice system who haven't been changed by their past punishments."

Tim Godwin, acting Metropolitan Police commissioner, appeared to lend his support to Ken Clarke's comments when giving evidence to the home affairs select committee on the riots.

He said: "I think this is a wake-up call for the criminal justice system, yes. The amount of people that have got previous convictions does pose questions for us. And I think we, the Met, have got to learn from that.

London mayor Boris Johnson also spoke to the committee, voicing his agreement with Ken Clarke's terming of rioters and looters as part of a "feral underclass".

He also ruled out race as a factor in the riots, suggesting that what rioters had in common was that they were already in contact with the police.

Sadiq Khan MP, Labour's shadow justice secretary, accused Ken Clarke of failing to offer solutions to the problems he outlines and of having no "coherent" strategy to punish and reform offenders.

"It's all very well Ken Clarke identifying a problem with reoffending, but he has not offered any solutions.

"Offenders must be punished, but they should also be rehabilitated while serving their sentences. But the deep cuts to the MoJ budget means that there aren't the resources to carry out proper rehabilitation programmes."

He pointed to overcrowded prisons and limited numbers of probation officers as examples of the coalition government's failure to provide a "strong and fully resourced" service.