Do our law courts deserve a reputation for being part of a bygone era – stuffy, rigid and out of touch?
The stereotype is entrenched but it’s far from the truth, says criminology lecturer Dr Meredith Rossner from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
This month’s historic lifting of a 90-year ban on filming in the Court of Appeal is just one example of a move towards a more open and transparent legal system, both in the UK and worldwide.
While television cameras are still restricted to the higher courts (Supreme and Court of Appeal) and exclude footage of defendants, witnesses and victims, the relaxation of broadcasting laws is a landmark decision, according to Dr Rossner.
“It is a very clear message that courts are the cornerstone of democracy and the more the public is involved, the better,” she says.
Allowing cameras into the courtroom has been commonplace in the United States for some years, but lessons have been learned from the media circus during OJ Simpson’s criminal trial in the mid-1990s and other high profile cases in that country.
“The UK does not want to turn its justice system into a spectacle, as happened with OJ Simpson. Hopefully, by restricting footage to lawyers and judges, we can avoid this,” Dr Rossner says.
Apart from television cameras, there is plenty of evidence to show that courts are keeping pace with technology and making the justice system both more accountable and efficient.
Video conferencing is now widely used for child witnesses, allowing them to give evidence in a protected, safe area which is less daunting than a court room. The same technology is used to cross-examine experts from far afield, defendants in prison and interpreters who may be based in another country.
Mobile tablets are soon to be trialled in Australian courts, giving prosecutors, defence lawyers and juries access to iPads, so that written and pictorial evidence (photographs and maps) can be shared more easily between the parties.
“The idea is to see whether evidence presented via an iPad is an effective deliberation aid for juries. At the moment, many courts project evidence on to a big screen, but the quality is not always good and often jury members do not have time to process all the information.
“There are two possible outcomes here. The iPads may make it easier for juries to make sense of evidence, particularly in complex trials, but they could also inhibit group dynamics because people tend to go into a world of their own when a computer screen is in front of them. This could be the downside.”
Courts have also had to adapt to the global embrace of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, which presents enormous challenges for the justice system.
Finding an impartial jury and ensuring defendants receive a fair trial is becoming more difficult in a world dominated by the internet, but Dr Rossner says all the evidence shows that juries are still the best option.
“Much like cameras in a courtroom, juries have both a symbolic and substantive role. They are the face of democracy and they bring balance to a courtroom, providing a unique perspective alongside legal expertise.”
And despite the public’s relatively low confidence in the legal system, individuals who have served on a jury report much higher levels of trust in their courts than society does as a whole, Dr Rossner says.
“There is something really unique about the process of serving on a jury that accentuates the value of being part of a democratic society. Most jurors see it as a positive experience and are far more inclined to become involved in civic life afterwards.”
The overwhelming majority – around 85 per cent – also come to the same conclusion as the judge, belying criticism of their usefulness.
Dr Rossner says although the role of juries is shrinking worldwide (they are no longer used in the UK for civil cases), countries such as Japan and South Korea have recently introduced the jury system in a bid to modernise their courts.
And while bias and the influence of social media are acknowledged, the deliberation process helps jurors iron out any prejudices, Dr Rossner adds.
Restorative justice is another way that lay people are becoming involved in the justice process. The practice, which is gaining widespread support in common law countries, brings together not just victims and perpetrators, but all parties with a stake in the offence, including family and friends, witnesses and the police.
The concept of victim and offender coming face to face with each other outside the court room to discuss the impact of a crime has mixed results, Dr Rossner says. Research overwhelmingly shows that victims on average experience less trauma and recover faster if they take part in this process.
However, the evidence that it helps to rehabilitate offenders is less convincing.
It is most effective in more serious offences where violence is involved because emotions run high and restorative justice meetings provide an outlet for both parties to talk through their feelings. In general, the less serious the crime, the less effective the process is.
"The legal system is certainly not perfect but the changes taking place in our court rooms reflect advances both in technology and culturally. This is not a system rooted in the last century," Dr Rossner says.
Dr Meredith Rossner joined LSE’s Department of Law in 2013 as a lecturer in criminology. Previously, she was a Research Fellow at the University of Western Sydney. She holds a PhD in Criminology and Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA and BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include emotions and interactions in criminal justice, criminology theory, restorative justice, and juries.
Dr Rossner has recently published a book, “Just Emotions: Rituals of Restorative Justice” available from Oxford University Press.
For more details of her work, click here.
Uploaded November 2013