21st Century Court Reporting

Reports that legal history had been made by a judge allowing the use of Twitter in open court for an extradition hearing in London sparked a few earth-shattering predictions.

Was this the end of court reporting as we know it? Could this be ‘possibly the final nail in the coffin of shorthand’? Will court hearings soon be televised? Should everyone be allowed to digitally record proceedings?

The ensuing debate conjured up pin-sharp HD images of a future where legal cases are reported as they happen by a series of tweets, freely available to all at no cost whatsoever.

Compare this to the faded daguerrotype of decrepit court reporters shuffling out of court at the end of proceedings with their notebooks of laboriously written shorthand which has to be transcribed back to English in their heads and then inputted into a computer before being edited, amended, polished and printed on newspapers perused by the few at a price.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

But let’s not get carried away. For a start, the Julian Assange extradition case is relatively unique. The outcome of the hearing was of interest to a vast international audience and concerned a man who has become the figurehead for a crusade on behalf of openness in government. Wikileaks, the organisation he founded, has been a popular subject on Twitter for months.

As Adam Wagner has said on the UK Human Rights Blog, the power of Twitter ‘lies in its system of replies, followers, categories and retweets, whereby people can research and broadcast information in an extremely specific and targeted way to to the world at large.’

Tweets of 140 characters are not particularly suited to court reporting other than by transmitting the basic result of a case. Reporters have been tweeting (and texting) in this way for a long time now, even if it usually has to be done away from the eyes of suspicious court staff. So it is not a new development, it is just that the Times reporter Alexi Mostrous felt it necessary to ask the judge for permission and then publicised the granting of permission. (There are two ways of confronting obstructive rules – ask for permission first or flout and argue later).

While courts have become more lenient about allowing laptops to be used openly (nobody seems to mind an ipad being flipped open), mobile phones are seen as insidious devices designed to break the rules. Journalists are told to turn them off and reprimanded if caught ‘playing’ with them during a case.

No doubt this rule developed because of the frequency that ridiculous ringtones went off every five minutes, but they can also interfere with TV and speaker equipment. And it may sound stupid, but people have tried to take pictures of defendants in the court, no doubt so they can later hang them on their bedroom walls.

And perhaps the idea that the journalist is having fun texting his friends and lovers while everybody else has to concentrate also plays a part.

There are other reasons why this type of hearing was more suited to Twitter. As an extradition case held before a district judge it could be commented upon by whoever cares to share their opinion, whether instantly via twitter or at leisure on their blog.

This does not apply to jury trials where comment is outlawed and prejucidial information not heard by the jury is banned by the Contempt of Court Act. Why? Because it is the received opinion that giving juries every little piece of information would be like handing them a stick of dynamite.

In the world of court, not everything is relevant to the case. How this works in practice has been developed over the centuries. It is the judge’s task to decide what the jury should be told (and in this way he works a bit like an old-style newspaper).

Is it relevant that a rape victim’s sexual history should be laid out in open court? What about a defendant’s list of previous convictions? How about the suspicions and speculations of witnesses and police officers based on rumour and the ‘word on the street’? What exactly counts as ‘evidence’?

There are countless examples of verdicts being overturned because a juror was told how to vote by her husband, or did research on the internet or visited the murder scene on their own or generally tried to take up their deerstalker and pipe and investigate the case themselves.

Counter to this establishment fear of being held to ransom by ill-educated and easily-swayed juries runs the growing feeling that there should be more trust in the public. Are they not capable of deciding what is relevant and what is not? This is to a certain extent how the system works in the US, although they have a complicated jury selection process which strikes most British observers as deeply strange. Here in the UK we select at random, discriminating neither by age, race, religion or intelligence.

So it’s about trust. And if open tweeting from court is going to increase interest and trust in the workings of our justice system then that can only be a good thing. Likewise cameras in court – they will neither bring down the system or replace journalists, they will hopefully augment both.

All this doesn’t mean that court reporting is dead. It just means that like everything else it is being improved and adapted as time goes by. There will always be a market for an entertaining report of court proceedings. It isn’t always just about the result.

Equally it doesn’t mean that shorthand is dead, despite its reputation for being antiquated and unnecessary now that lovely shiny digital recorders are available. Recorders are fine for those who aren’t working to a tight deadline but they are absolutely useless for those occasions when people want accurate and readable copy of more than 140 characters within 20 minutes.

Paradoxically this is a skill that has been on the decline in recent years as newspapers cut back and bring their deadlines forward to save money.

But when people have turned away from printed newspapers talking about yesterday’s news and started favouring the internet with its ever-shifting front pages, surely shorthand is more important than ever? It is a skill that places the competent reporter with an advantage over their rivals at a time when it appears that everyone wants to be a journalist.

In a world where the norm is for news to be provided for free, quality will be king.

Third Time Lucky?

Anthony Carter
Anthony Carter

It could almost be a scientific experiment.

Take one murder case, subject it to three trials, each with different juries, and await the results. Would you expect the verdicts to be the same?

This actually happened to Anthony Carter, a 37 year-old man who was suspected of shooting a hotel waiter dead during a £50 ‘drug deal gone wrong’ in Tottenham in 1998.

Carter was linked to the crime by his DNA found on a baseball cap found clutched in the victim’s hand at the scene and an alleged confession he made to his ex-girlfriend ten years later. He was not identified by eyewitnesses and he denied being the gunman.

His defence was that his cap had gone missing some time earlier and that his former partner was being vindictive to get full control of their child.

Carter first went on trial in January 2009 but the jury was unable to reach a majority verdict and was discharged.

The retrial began in June 2009 and this time he was convicted and jailed for life with a minimum of 20 years behind bars.

But the story didn’t end there.

Carter’s lawyers appealed the decision of the trial judge to allow the jury to be told of a conviction for possession of a gun after the murder took place. The appeal court directed that he be tried a third time, this time without mention of that information.

At the third and final trial in November 2010, Carter was cleared of murder by the jury and left court a free man.

Three different juries, three different verdicts.

We are not allowed to know what goes on in a jury room so exactly what influences their collective decision is unknown.

But if this case reveals anything, it is how one decision made by 12 members of the public can completely change a life. It is perhaps for this reason that some people want to do away with juries altogether.

The jury was not the only variable in this experiment. The third trial was overseen by a different judge, presented by a different prosecutor and took place in a different courtroom. No doubt the accounts of the witnesses and even the defendant at court varied slightly.

And perhaps the knowledge that Carter had handled a gun, even if it postdated the crime, may have tipped resonable doubt into certainty of guilt.

If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself this question: Who would you prefer to hear your case if you were accused of a crime? A man in a wig used to dispensing justice to hardened criminals or 12 men and women chosen at random?

The Sentencing Con Trick

If a man receives an eight year sentence for robbery, how much time does he actually serve behind bars?

It’s not eight years, for a start. It might not even be four years, although most criminals are told they will serve half their sentences before being released on licence. Some are released even earlier on electronic tags.

So what is the point of providing a number at all? Isn’t it just playing mind games with the public?

Most people know that prisoners only serve half their sentences, but just as a CD sounds more attractive to buy at £9.99 than £10, so an eight year sentence for a violent robber sounds better than four years.

This trick, while not an outright deception, is similar to the use of the ‘life sentence’. We all know that life does not mean life, but to many it sounds more like an appropriate punishment for murder.

At least with life sentences and the relatively new ‘imprisonment for public protection’ (IPP), we are told the minimum term that must be served behind bars.

This is why the press now tends to say a killer has been jailed for 30 years rather than ‘jailed for life.’ People aren’t stupid, so why should we use ambiguous phrases?

The Government say they want to increase public understanding and confidence in the system. It’s one of the reasons why the Sentencing Council has begun a public consultation on guidelines for assault cases. The idea is to ensure violent criminals are dealt with consistently and on the same basis by courts across the country.

Judges will now have to skip through eight steps, bearing in mind a large number of variables along the way, before they come up with the magic number.

Robot in wig
A Robot in a Wig

Obviously it helps to set this all out, just so we know that people aren’t being sentenced according to the roll of a dice or what side of bed the judge rolled out of, but is that really why people lack confidence in the system?

Do we really need a step by step guide that turns judges into little more than robots in wigs? (see right)

What needs immediate reform is not the way the number is arrived at, but the number itself.

Let that number be the amount of time that a prisoner will actually spend in jail.

We should not have to immediately resort to arithmetic, or whip out our calculators, to arrive at the truth.*

*For those who are interested, for normal ‘determinate’ sentences you take the number provided and divide it by two before subtracting the days already spent in jail awaiting trial. For ‘indeterminate’ sentences like life sentences and IPP, the judge announces the minimum term that must be served before being released on licence. Life sentences mean the offender must spend their entire life on licence, while IPP sentences allow for the licence period to finish after ten years.

Violence in Films and Computer Games: Guest Blog

Does the portrayal of violence in the media affect human behaviour? Should we be concerned about violence in computer games, books and film? These questions are being asked more often as games in particular grow ever more realistic.

The US Supreme Court recently debated whether video games are worse than films and books because they are interactive. While one of the Justices even highlighted a study that “says that the effect of violence is the same for a Bugs Bunny episode as it is for a violent video.”

We asked one of our readers to put forward her views for the first of a series of ‘Guest Blogs.’ Here is ‘Emma, 32’.

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Murder has intrigued me since I was quite young. I think it began around the time of one of our country’s worst murder cases which was the abduction and murder of young James Bulger.

What motivated Jon Venables and Robert Thompson to commit such a ghastly crime at such a young age? Personally I would have put these two grotesque human beings in prison for life (meaning whole life). I feel these boys knew exactly what they where going to do when they left their houses that morning.

There was speculation at the time it was due to the boys watching a horror movie called Child’s Play but the more you think about it the less comprehendible it becomes. How could children be so cruel?

Before I became a mother myself I thought the very idea of games, movies and music changing a child’s behaviour was completely ridiculous.

I now have a very different view – that it does change a person, especially those whom are most suggestible. I am by no means a perfect parent but I felt I had to confiscate my eldest son’s computer war game due to the person he had become. He went from being a very placid child/teen to being verbally and physically abusive to all of us in the house.

I can recall a TV program I watched on Channel 4 (Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance) where they did an experiment with a group of children playing video games. Half were playing non-violent games and the other half were playing violent games. The ones that had been playing the violent games had become completely desensitised to others’ needs and feelings.

Yes, these games, music and movies have certification but parents will go out and purchase these for their underage children. One particular movie I found rather disturbing is Quentin Tarantino’s Hostel (rated 18), in which backpackers are tortured and murdered. I was extremely shocked to learn that my son had seen this movie whilst sleeping round a friend’s house – hence he is no longer allowed to unless I know the parents well.

It is hard as a parent because you don’t know what your child is doing when they leave your house. Mine are now getting to the age where it won’t be long before I search them on leaving and entering the house.

Even cartoons nowadays glamorise violence, such as the Simpsons with Itchy and Scratchy. Children should not be exposed to such things at such a young age.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

The cult film noir Detour has an unusual take on murder. The ‘hero’ is neither a hardened criminal or an innocent man fighting for justice.

Instead the main character, hitchhiker Al Roberts, asks us to believe that he has accidentally become a double killer.

Watching it was a bit like listening in court to a defendant giving his explanation from the witness box.

That man I left naked by the side of the road with a nasty gash on his head? Well he must have died in his sleep and then fallen and hit his head on a large rock. I took his clothes, his money and his car because there was no other choice. Nobody would believe what really happened.

That girl lying dead on the bed in a motel room? I must have accidentally strangled her with the telephone wire trying to stop her calling the police.

The film portrays these events plausibly enough. But as Al Roberts says, when considering whether to go to the police: ‘They’d laugh at the truth.’

When it comes to the courts these decisions are made by the jury on the basis of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. But what exactly is a reasonable doubt?

Juries, faced with the responsibility of sending a man to prison, ask this question so often that judges now tend to give the altternative explanation that they ‘have to be sure’ of a defendant’s guilt.

Sometimes this appears to confuse people even more. It doesn’t mean you have to be 100 per cent certain of guilt – after all, can anyone be 100 per cent certain of anything?

There are potential explanations for almost every crime. In one case a suspected killer whose DNA was found on the victim’s body claimed that he just happened to find her corpse lying by the side of the road and decided to have sex with it.

It was quite obviously ludicrous, but it was theoretically possible.

Not every killer is caught in the act on CCTV or confesses under questioning. DNA or fingerprints are not always found at the scene. The jury have to reach their decision after considering all the evidence presented in court. And if they are not convinced of guilt they should acquit, even if they suspect they did commit the crime.

There is a reason for such a high standard of proof, and it’s easier to understand it by putting yourself in the shoes of the defendant in the dock. And I’d bet that almost everyone would prefer the decision to be made by 12 members of the public than a legally-trained judge.

Because, as Al Roberts says at the end of the film, ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.’

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Detour [1945] is now public domain and can be watched for free online.