I stood up this week and made a speech. I have made speeches like this many times in my 26 years as a criminal barrister. For me, and others like me, this is the ultimate demonstration of our craft as lawyers – a closing speech to the jury in a criminal trial.
The importance of a jury speech cannot be overstated. As defence counsel, I have the last word in court, just before the judge sums up the law and the facts and finally sends the jury out to deliberate. The verdict returned will dictate whether the defendant – my client – will leave the court building by the front door, returning to his life, or in a prison van, heading for a very different world.
The jury trial is one of the most fundamental features of our public life and has been an integral feature of criminal justice in England, in one form or another, for almost a thousand years. Jury service is the last mandatory obligation on all of us as citizens, to perform an official role on behalf of society. Fail to turn up for jury service and you will face possible arrest and punishment. It is a sacred duty indeed.
And yet, as I stood up this this week, smoothing my silk robes, straightening my stiff wing collar and opening the file of notes in front of me on the lectern, something was missing. The jurors themselves were attentive, paper and pens at the ready, perhaps more interested because of my fortuitous early morning slot (nobody wants the graveyard shift of late afternoon, when eyelids are quivering).
The judge sat ready to make a diligent record of the key arguments I was to advance. Prosecution and the other defence counsel were perhaps a little less engaged; their work having been done, they turned their minds to emails, checked their news feeds and searched the web in leisurely fashion, looking for holiday destinations for the summer. The defendants in the dock behind were – I assume – keen to hear me speak, but I could not tell from the angle available to me in counsels’ benches.
The case is a serious one. The precise details are less important than the gravity – a conviction could well result in a long prison sentence and confiscation of assets. For the defendants, a guilty verdict would mean losing everything.
As I stood, I glanced momentarily to my left and at the public gallery. Several dozen seats were set aside for interested citizens to come and watch the wheels of justice turning on their behalf. Every single one of those seats was empty. Despite the seriousness of the case – which also comprised many fascinating insights into the human condition, from the evidence which had been heard in the weeks of the trial to this point – not one person had the time or the inclination to come and watch the proceedings.
When I rose to make my speech, it was hardly surprising nobody was there. Most people are at work during the day or have childcare responsibilities; they perhaps lack mobility or a mode of transport to get them to a court building, some distance from the centre of a small city. Life is busy enough and criminal trials take days, weeks or even months to play out, from beginning to end. Who’s got the time?
The fact that most people, not directly involved in the criminal justice system as professionals, jurors or witnesses, never see how it works does not prevent the formation of strong opinions, sprayed out across the internet and via social media, much of it entirely misinformed. The mismatch between the reality of what happens in our courts, and the perceptions nurtured about what happens there, is staggering and – I feel – dangerously undermines a system of such importance to us all.
Which is why I was pleased to hear the announcement that cameras will be allowed into Crown Courts in England for the very first time (it has happened in Scotland for decades, although in practice it is rare).
My concern is the distinct lack of imagination in limiting filming to the judge’s sentencing remarks, meaning that the public will not hear the evidence, the speeches of counsel or any of the other vital elements of the trial process. In Scotland, the often dry and formulaic recital of the facts, the law and the sentence passed, has never been a ratings winner. There is no clamber to hear much more of it. Certainly, the more high-profile English criminal cases – terrorism, murder and possibly the occasional celebrity rape trial – may draw media attention and snippets of footage on the news.
Without the real meat of the trial, as available to anyone with the time to visit court and sit in the public gallery to watch, the novelty may wear off quickly, to be replaced by indifference once again.
For me, open justice – long a watchword of our legal process – requires us to let the cameras into every court in the land, to film and broadcast everything, from beginning to end. Provided that vulnerable witnesses, jurors and the fairness of the trial are protected, our criminal courts need to move into the 21st century. Bring it on.