When I was covering a Crown Court case I was once put in the dock and asked by the judge if I had been using a recording device, which would have been contempt of court.
I hadn't, I was relying on my shorthand. I think some court official had got the wrong idea after the electronic alarm on one of the lawyer's expensive watches had gone off.
But, I have often wondered what was so wrong about using a tape recorder, especially if you wanted to accurately report a judge's complicated summing up or his final remarks when passing sentence.
It just seems archaic, like seeing drawings of major court proceeding on the news and in the press rather than photographs.
Today in The Times and on her blog, journalist Heather Brooke (pictured), makes the case for tape recorders being allowed in court.
She argues: "The simple answer is to allow tape recorders for all: no party is disadvantaged and an ‘official’ recording is there for checking. This is how it works in other countries. But this is to ignore the root objection of the courts: that they are losing control of how court proceedings are presented to the public.
"The courts’ refusal to allow people to tape-record benefit a few private companies whom the court approves in cosy deals. These people have exclusive right to tape record or listen to official recordings. The cost to the individual of hiring them is about £150– 250 per hour of typing and even before the transcription process begins, you must sign a form stating you will pay whatever amount the company decides. You could be out tens of thousand of pounds and there’s no way to challenge the bill as only the company is allowed access to the raw tapes."
She adds: "Many trials in the upper courts are now officially recorded (and in the case of the new UK Supreme Court, filmed) yet these records are not accessible to the public. All High Court hearings have been digitally recorded since February 2010 and sit in a basement in the Royal Courts of Justice. When I spoke to the court’s governance officer he told me there were no plans to make these accessible directly to the public. Why not?"
I couldn't agree more when Brooke argues: "The rhetoric of the English legal system is that justice must be seen to be done so why are the public forbidden – under threat of jail – from recording a verbatim account of proceedings? Not only that, rules are so opaque and obscure that court reporters struggle to report cases with any degree of accuracy or depth. And that is when there is a reporter in court, which these days is a rarity – there used to be 25 reporters covering national courts for the Press Association; by 2009 there were only four."
If anyone can shake up our fusty old court system it's Heather Brooke. Court officials should remember what happened to MPs when they tried to block her finding out about their expenses.
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