The following are some of the common arguments for and against having cameras in the courtroom.
The fundamental argument is that it is essential to justice in a democracy that the public sees and understands the court system at work. That is the reason why courts are open to anyone, with very limited exceptions. Any person can choose to go into virtually any Canadian courtroom and no one is allowed to ask them why they are there. That means that some people will attend court for entertainment and that the presence of the public will make some participants in a trial uncomfortable, perhaps even intimidated. But the court have long acknowledged that is the price of making sure the courts are open to public scrutiny, which, in turn, should make the public more aware and respectful of the court process. But while the public has the right to attend court, most don’t have the time to see the trials and hearings they are interested in. That’s why the media attend. And that is why television news organizations want cameras in courtrooms: to be the eyes and ears of the public.
The proponents concede that some media organizations may indeed attend simply to boost ratings. But there is ample evidence that major media organizations attend many court hearings that are not sensational or even particularly interesting to the public. Those reports are there because the proceedings are important.
The evidence from important, televised quasi-judicial proceedings show quite the opposite: that cameras have had no appreciable impact on the participants.
All types of cases which currently lead to publication bans, including most cases involving sexual assault and/or children will also be off-limits to cameras. Also, judges will always retain the discretion to ban cameras at any point. But there are certainly many trials and many moments in a trial where these concerns don’t apply, for example, during sentencing of someone who is, obviously, convicted.
Banning the media or part of the media because of the potential that the media will make mistakes is a classic case made by censors the world over. Mistakes by media are part of the price of free speech and a free media. However, there is no evidence of such distortion in many televised public inquiries.
- Lost in the debate is often the good cameras would do. Among the benefits are: keeping judges and lawyers on their toes, teaching people about the court system, and giving sentences greater impact in their community. On this last point, one of the basic roles of a criminal sentence is general deterrence (deterring people from doing the crime because they see what the penalty is). How much more effective would sentences be if people, especially young people, could watch a judge handing down a sentence and the reaction of the guilty person as they are taken into custody?
The media is only interested in sensational cases and wants to cover the courts to entertain, not to inform.
- Cameras are likely to intimidate witnesses, and distract lawyers and jurors and even induce them to act in a different manner.
- Cameras will invade the privacy of the accused, the alleged victims, and witnesses. This is especially problematic in sexual assault cases and/or cases involving children.
The television media will make mistakes or knowingly distort proceedings which will damage the credibility of the court.
- The justice system is doing quite fine without cameras in the court so any possible harm is not worth risking.
The following scenarios are provided for students to read on Handout 4: Should Cameras be Permitted in Court?
Regina vs. Ted
A ten-year-old child named Sam is walking from the park when a van pulls up and a man gets out. The man introduces himself as Ted. He tells Sam that he has some free video games in the van and asks if Sam would like to look at them. Sam says yes and starts to walk to the open door of the van. Just as he gets to the door, he remembers that his mom told him not to talk to strangers. He turns and tries to leave. Ted grabs him and pushes him towards the door of the van. Sam is terrified and fights with all his strength to get free. He starts to scream and he attracts the attention of a family driving by in their car. The driver stops the car and steps out to see what is going on. Ted loosens his grip on Sam’s arm and Sam kicks Ted in the shin and manages to get free and run to the family’s car. Ted hops in his van and quickly drives off. The family writes down the license number of the van and Ted is stopped by the police and arrested for assault. This is not the first time that Ted has been in court as he has two previous convictions for sexual assault on young people.
Regina vs. Sarah and Allison
A group of young people goes to English Bay to see the fireworks display. The fireworks start at 10:00 p.m., and they have been at the beach since 7:00 p.m. drinking beer. Some of the people in the group have had too much to drink and start to get argumentative. Jody is not too popular with this group and has tagged along even though the others didn’t ask her to go. Sarah is popular and starts to call Jody names and then begins flicking sand in her face. Jody pretends not to notice at first, but then all the girls do the same. She asks them to stop but they refuse to listen. Jody gets up and tries to leave, but Sarah and another girl, Allison, kick her feet from under her. Jody falls to the sand. Sarah kicks her in the head several times and Allison kicks her in the stomach and the back. Bystanders appalled by the fight call for the police, who arrive and arrest Sarah and Allison for assault causing bodily harm. Jody is covered in blood and unconscious by the time the police arrive and is taken to hospital. All of the people in the group are nineteen years old.