Cameras in our Courtrooms
By Satyajit Boolell, SC
I was in court yesterday (Tuesday 11th October 11), listening to Mr Justice Balancy delivering sentence in the murder case of State v Chocalingum. Apart from members of the victim’s family and a few police witnesses, there was overall a poor attendance in court. It was the culmination of a three-week long trial before nine jurors and there was the judge sentencing the defendant in this important case and explaining why he felt that the defendant deserved 42 years for this “odious crime”.
A key requirement in our legal system was being fulfilled. Justice was being dispensed in an open court.
It is often argued and rightly so, the wider the access the public has to the courts, the greater the exposure to the judicial process and the better the understanding of how our courts dispense justice.
It is precisely for these reasons that the Supreme Court in UK has endorsed the idea of having television cameras covering its proceedings. This decision affects us indirectly since all the proceedings before the Privy Council heard before the Law Lords are also covered by TV cameras. As a result, appeals from Mauritius are broadcast live to a UK audience.
I do not intend to detract from the purpose of this short article but allow me to suggest to the MBC to purchase in future from Sky News, proceedings before the Privy Council which are relevant to us and to broadcast them. Take for instance the case of “Rezistans ek Alternativ” challenging the decision of the full bench of the Supreme Court on the best loser issue which will be heard before the Privy Council at the end of the month. The constitutional issues that will be debated before the Privy Council are matters of public importance and I see no reason why we could not have a live or deferred broadcast of these proceedings.
Coming back to the importance of having TV cameras in our courtrooms, I can think of three advantages.
First, it will enable a much larger public to have access to the courtroom. They will be able to assist court deliberations in the comfort of their homes and understand better the court process. Accessibility can only boost public confidence in our legal process.
Second, the judiciary, as one Law Lord puts it “will be in the glare of a wider public. It will no doubt respond in a manner which will enhance its efficacy and effectiveness.” Our judiciary has always been recognised as a forte of our democratic setup, and I do not foresee any objection to more openness on the part of its members.
Third, TV coverage of court proceedings could be used as an important pedagogical tool for the training of prospective barristers.
There is nevertheless a need to exercise caution so as not to allow the judicial process to become the subject matter of sensational or salacious coverage, a temptation that occurs with the complicity of a TV audience. The trial of Dr Murray, following the death of Michael Jackson in the US, highlights how different and sober our own adversarial system can be when compared to the US system. Court cases should on no account be turned into soap operas. Members of the bar should not use the opportunity of a wider audience to advance a cause other than one related to the case of their client.
In the lower courts where much of the time of the court is taken up with the testimonies of witnesses, both in civil and criminal cases, there is a huge risk that witnesses may be influenced or intimidated by the presence of cameras. We must therefore strike a balance between, on the one hand, giving more access to the public to court proceedings and the judicial process itself. It should however be pointed out that the cameras would be barely visible and the actual filming is normally carried out by remote controls in a room outside the courtroom.
We could start by projecting the lights of the TV cameras in the appellate division of the Supreme Court where witnesses are not heard. The next step may well be to allow TV cameras in the courtroom when the judge is about to deliver his sentence. The public will be in a better position to appreciate the reasoning of the Judge or Magistrate when passing a sentence.
By opening our courtrooms to the wider public through television, we will, at the same time, educate them on our system of justice and dispel any misapprehensions. It is also important that those who are guilty of crime are seen to be punished for the crime they are committed.
Disraeli used to say that “justice is truth in action”. Shining the glare of the camera lights on its workings will allow us to better appreciate justice.
Satyajit Boolell, SC
(This article has also been published in the ninth issue of the newsletter of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions)
* Published in print edition on 14 October 2011