The issue came to the fore once again when the Lord Chancellor announced that the Government had decided to move forward and was going to overturn the ban and broadcast screen footage for the first time, as part of “unprecedented plans to improve transparency”. But before barristers up and down the country book in makeovers and sell advertising space on their gowns, it might be too early to get carried away. Starting with judgments in the Court of Appeal, the Government will also consider changing arrangements in the Crown Court, in consultation with judiciary. There are no plans to screen trials just yet, so the Members’ Services discounts for Botox will have to wait.
This column is probably not the place to argue the pros and cons (the arguments are made effectively elsewhere in this issue), and it is true to say that even WW cannot claim complete unanimity on the issue. Nevertheless we will, fear not, continue to track Parliament’s proposals with neutrality and objectivity; but it does appear that there is a growing consensus across all sides of the House to open up the justice system to greater public scrutiny. One thing the profession probably can agree on is how important the role of the Bar and the judiciary will be in ensuring that, whatever Parliament does decide, appropriate safeguards are in place so that the interest of justice always come first.
I Predict a Riot
One of the key drivers towards the type of open justice envisaged, rightly or wrongly, by the pro-camera camp, is the fallout from August’s riots. As the dust begins to settle and the criminal justice process kicks fully into gear, the post-match analysis begins in earnest. As “experts” of all stripes determine the causes of the riots, the main culprits in the Government’s eyes seem to be overly generous human rights laws and a broken penal system.
The Lord Chancellor (with loud support from Social Justice Tsar, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith) has pointed the finger firmly at a failing penal policy, citing the participation of many who had been through the criminal justice system and punished for other crimes plainly without sufficient rehabilitation. He suggested that more than three quarters of those over 18 who have been charged have previous convictions. There can be little doubt that sky-high re-offending rates have long blighted the effectiveness and cost of dealing with offenders. However, identifying the social causes of crime is often as easy as finding the reasons for the common cold, and they will no doubt remain as difficult to tackle.
The Prime Minister reserved the bulk of his ammunition for the misrepresentation of the Human Rights Act and health and safety laws, which, he said, have had a “corrosive influence on behaviour and morality”. An interesting use of smoke and mirrors, some may think, and doubtless to cause a sharp intake of breath amongst human rights lawyers, and others. But it does reflect a view within the Conservative Party that the Act is seen to place too much emphasis on the rights of individuals and not enough on wider society. Replacing it with a British Bill of Rights (Don’t we have one of those already?) has been discussed for some time; getting it past the Tories’ Coalition partners might be something else entirely.
A listening Government?
Proof, at last, that contrary to popular belief, the Government and the Ministry of Justice do sometimes listen and respond to the profession’s concerns, is the very welcome news that referral fees are to be banned in personal injury cases. This is hopefully the first step towards the wholesale ban for which the Bar Council has been calling for some time. It is hard to see how these bribes can be a legitimate part of any justice system acting in the public interest. It is also welcome that the Government has gone in where the Legal Services Board feared to tread when it conducted its own consultation earlier this year and chose inexplicably to retain them. Perhaps even the greatest cynics have reason to hope.
However, this might hinge on whether the Government’s ear is still engaged as the Legal Aid Bill continues its course through parliament. The cynics amongst you raise an eye-brow. With the House of Commons stages of the Bill expected to conclude this month, before rolling into the Lords, there are still opportunities for the Government to ensure that access to justice trumps all other concerns. A range of Bar Council amendments, targeting specific clauses, have been tabled and are being debated (the full list can be found on the Bar Council’s website). The Bar Council is doing all it can to influence the passage of the Bill, whether by providing briefing materials to MPs, suggesting alternative wording for key provisions or meeting with parliamentarians in Westminster and at Party Conferences. It remains an uphill battle, but the more repeatedly and more vocally we express our concerns, the more we hope they will be heard.
This month will also see the launch of Unlocking Disputes, an industry-led campaign, which the Bar Council has been instrumental in constructing, to promote London as a world-leading dispute resolution centre. In conjunction with the launch of the Rolls Building, the new commercial court, which will house the commercial, chancery and technology and construction courts, the campaign will showcase the very best the legal profession has to offer. With strong support from the Government and the judiciary, the Bar’s high quality significant contribution to UK PLC rightly takes centre stage even if it is not yet on camera ...
Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council
Toby Craig is the Head of Communications at the Bar Council