The use of courtroom cameras to protect witnesses is back in the spotlight with the pending high-profile trial of a Johannesburg sports coach who faces molestation charges, notes Legalbrief. For different reasons, a leading UK law practitioner has suggested that witnesses should be given the opportunity to testify via Skype from their homes. It’s also an issue in the US, where the Minnesota Supreme Court has made permanent a pilot project that allows limited use of cameras in the state’s courtrooms. The High Court recently gave its formal stamp of approval to the rules. Media outlets and independent journalists still can’t provide full photo, video and audio coverage of trials. However, a report on the kaaltv site notes that the change allows audio, video and photos of proceedings after a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted. There are exceptions for criminal sexual conduct and domestic violence cases. Attorney Mark Anfinson said the development represents progress but he noted that neighbouring Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota have allowed routine camera coverage of court cases for more than 30 years, and more than 30 other states do as well. The issue also came into the spotlight last month when the Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s so-called travel ban. Sonia Sotomayor offered a passionate dissent from the bench. She accused the 5-4 majority of ‘turning a blind eye to the pain and suffering the (ban) inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens’. The LA Times reports that it was a dramatic moment, but the public didn’t get to see and hear it. The court bars television cameras not only from oral arguments but also from the supposedly public announcements in which judges summarise their opinions.
Parktown Boys’ High School pupils who were allegedly raped or abused by an assistant water polo coach are expected to testify at his trial from a separate room. Luke Lamprecht, convener of the Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum, said the victims would be assisted by intermediaries who could be either a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist or teacher. He said according to the Criminal Procedure Act, in cases where witnesses were likely to suffer undue mental trauma they should be placed in a separate room and be assisted by intermediaries. The Sunday Times reports that a camera will link the child and the intermediary to the court room. Questions can only be heard by the intermediary, who relays them to the child ‘in a language that the child can manage, and the whole court gets to see the child’s reply’. In addition to the appointment of intermediaries, the court will be cleared when the boys are giving testimony and only those who are directly involved in the case will be allowed to remain. The report notes that video evidence captured by CCTV cameras in the school hostel for boarders would be deliberated in camera as the footage would identify the children. The 22-year-old suspect, who may not be named because he has not yet pleaded, faces 160 charges. These include rape and abuse, and 32 charges of attempted murder relating to choking incidents. Legalbrief reports that the trial, which was due to start on Monday, was postponed to 13 August after defence attorney Clinton Symes said he was withdrawing from the case due to lack of financial instructions from his client.
Members of the public should be asked if they wanted to go to a physical court building or talk to the judge via Skype from their homes, the UK’s outgoing Family Division president has suggested. According to a Law Gazette report, Sir James Munby, who retired last week, told a press conference at the Royal Courts of Justice that ‘anyone who thinks we currently have a network of courts which enables proper access to justice is deluding themselves’. Munby, who lives in ‘rural’ Wiltshire, told journalists his nearest family court was 32km away, before highlighting the challenges that a mother who did not own a car would face to get to the court. ‘If you ask (the mother), you have a simple choice, you can either make this journey or you can sit in your kitchen and talk to the judge on Skype. I do not know what the answer is. One thing that worries me is we have not asked people what the answer should be… What would the “customer” prefer. Is it: “Actually I would prefer to walk 19km”? We do not ask and we should ask.’ Last week HM Courts & Tribunals Service announced it was closing seven courts. Munby said a more ‘holistic view’ should be taken. ‘Do we need to keep the existing bricks and mortar? Do we need to hire more bricks and mortar?’ If court utilisation is low, the judge could sit in local council offices, he suggested. ‘The old-fashioned idea we have to have courts on ground which is owned by the state. We need to be much more flexible, think about using office accommodation, other facilities.’ Sir Andrew McFarlane, a Court of Appeal judge, replaces Munby as Family Division president.
In a separate matter, legal action has been launched against the Metropolitan Police over its use of facial recognition on the eve of a new trial. A report in The Independent notes that Baroness Jenny Jones and the campaign group Big Brother Watch have issued proceedings in the High Court after claiming that the technology breaches human rights and signals a ‘slippery slope towards an Orwellian society’. They are seeking permission for a judicial review of Scotland Yard’s use of automatic facial recognition software, which was found to be returning ‘false positives’ in 98% of alerts earlier this year. Britain’s largest force said images that did not generate a potential match with police databases were deleted immediately and confirmed that anyone refusing to be scanned ‘will not be viewed as suspicious’ ahead of a fresh trial in Stratford. The legal challenge officially lodged against the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, and the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Cressida Dick, aims to stop police using the software. It argues that the use of automatic facial recognition violates articles eight, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights – guaranteeing the rights to private life, freedom of expression, assembly and association – and is neither proportionate nor necessary. This week, cameras filmed the public for eight hours in east London, in one of 10 upcoming trials to take place over the coming months. Police will be hunting for wanted violent criminals as they attempt to crack down on rising violence, with officers reviewing potential matches before deciding whether to move in.