TV in court is a great idea but not in the way the Lord Chancellor intends

Times Online, November 17, 2006

I have long been advocate of the television in court. It is simply not acceptable, in today’s age, that trainee solicitors or other similarly lowly members of legal teams are forced to sit, for hour after interminable hour, on cold and uncomfortable wooden benches in fusty old courtrooms with nothing better to do than try and look as if they know what is going on.

The existing regime, in which they are denied not only television but also access to GameBoy, Playstation and Xbox, is surely contrary to their human rights, and so we cannot but applaud proposals by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, to throw open the courtroom doors to television.

The minutiae has yet to be revealed, but I imagine His Lordship is thinking of installing TV screens on the rear of those unfriendly old benches, rather as on the backs of the front seats in those posh 4x4 cars driven around Chelsea by the wives of all my rich lawyer friends. Though the comparison might be invidious, inviting images of affluence, idleness and neglect for the environment in one fell swoop, it is also apposite, for how much happier are the children of such couples, chauffered here and there with the option of watching a DVD, or maybe even live television, in the back of the car?

As it is with les enfants, so too our massed ranks of junior lawyers. Give them a television in court, and watch their faces light up with joy and interest in their surroundings. Observe as conflict and bickering over who sits where becomes a hazy memory. Take delight in their happy absorption in the moment.

But wait, what’s this? It seems that I am wrong. The scandalous denial of access to modest forms of entertainment (even mobile phones on silent are banned!) while in court is set to continue. It seems that Lord Falconer is not quite the radical I had hoped, for he is suggesting not that long-suffering minions in the legal world can watch TV in court but that court proceedings should be televised.

This is an altogether different kettle of fish, and one set to make life for the young lawyers there to make up the numbers yet more intolerable. Under Lord Falconer’s proposals, both criminal and civil trials as well as appeals would be televised and we might even get our very own court channel. The idea is to demystify the courts, to make the legal process more transparent, to engage wholeheartedly in Lord Hewart’s famous dictum that "justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done".

This is all very well, laudable even, but as well as not solving the problem of boredom among junior lawyers with little to do, it creates the dread spectre of the celebrity lawyer, a beast rarely seen in these parts.

The celeb lawyer craves being on TV. Exposure in the media is the celeb lawyer’s oxygen, not because he is out there righting wrongs and crusading for justice, but because, for him, the practise of law is much more to do with his ego than his clients. They are merely incidental. If they did not exist, the celeb lawyer would invent them. We have precious few of these types on these shores, for, thus far, they have been confined to California. But their number is sure to grow in the wake of televised court proceedings.

This is the problem with Lord Falconer’s proposals. He has neglected the suffering of the foot soldiers in favour of the fancy Dans, who, even now, will be consulting their own crack legal teams about their image rights. The arrival of cameras in court and the likely fetters on images of witnesses, victims and juries, will place yet more pressure on the downtrodden trainees to look as if they are truly involved in proceedings.

Meanwhile, though, the celeb lawyer will be casting sultry glances to camera. Earlier that day his agent will have called to say that there’s role in another new series of This Life, and would he be interested? "Of course," he will say, "justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. How much are they offering?"