A Brief History of Cameras in Court

Earlier this month Sky, ITN and the BBC lobbied the government to allow cameras in court. The hope is that criminal trials could be televised as early as early as 2015.

The ban on taking photographs goes back to 1925 but even before then cameras had to be smuggled into courtrooms in hats or bags.

Probably the most famous ‘snatched’ courtroom image is that of ‘Body in the Cellar’ murderer Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve, in 1910.

Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen in the dock of Bow Street Magistrates Court. Source: Library of Congress

Two years later a photographer decided to go one better by taking a picture of the poisoner Frederick Seddon as he was being sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. You can just make out the black cap on the head of the judge, Mr Justice Burchill.

Frederick Seddon (left, in the dock) being sentenced to death. Source: Wikipedia

This photo’s publication in an illustrated paper in March 1912 led to questions in the House of Commons. The MP Alexander MacCallum Scott suggested the government should ‘introduce legislation either to prohibit altogether the taking of such photographs or to provide that cinematograph proprietors will have equal facilities of photographing such proceedings and making a public spectacle of them.’ (Hansard 18/3/12)

Sadly the idea of allowing proceedings to be filmed with a ‘cinematograph’ (an early motion picture camera) was not pursued.

The Home Secretary Reginald McKenna gave his reply a few days later (Hansard 21/3/12): ‘I find that no permission was given for the taking of the photograph in question or of any photograph in the Court. It must have been taken without authority and surreptitiously. The Lord Mayor, the Sheriffs, and the officers of the Court strongly disapprove of such photographs being taken, and share my hon. Friend’s indignation that anyone should have been guilty of such an outrage.’

However McKenna wasn’t sufficiently outraged to bring in any legislation and in 1915 a photographer managed to grab a shot of the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer.

The ban only appeared ten years later as a small section (no. 41) in the Criminal Justice Act 1925, which mainly dealt with the system of probation.

No person shall (a) take or attempt to take in any court any photograph, or with a view to publication make or attempt to make in any court any portrait or sketch, of any person, being a judge of the court or a juror or a witness in or a party to any proceedings before the court, whether civil or criminal; or (b) publish any photograph, portrait or sketch taken or made in contravention of the foregoing provisions of this section or any reproduction thereof;

The act stated that the maximum punishment for breaking the law was a fine of £50.

Since then newspapers and TV companies have used sketches by court artists, made outside court from memory.

More recently, the taking of photographs in court has been dealt with as a contempt of court rather than under the 1925 Act. A 19 year-old man who took pictures inside Luton Crown Court on his mobile phone was jailed for two months while a Frenchman was kept sweating in the cells for two hours after taking a picture during Julian Assange’s appearance at the High Court.

This restriction on the use of mobile phone cameras in court is likely to remain even if the 1925 law is relaxed. Similarly, the ban on sound recording equipment under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 will probably only be partially lifted.

All that will be shown and heard, according to the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, is the judge delivering his sentencing remarks. No defendant in the dock, no witnesses, no prosecutor or defence barrister. Still, it’s a start.

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  1. The skill of the Court Artist (of which there are only really 3 in the UK media) will not pass altogether just yet, as media clients will still need a sketch of a defendant if he has been hauled into custody without any mugshots being released, or dramatic moments in court – but the budget from Broadcasters/Newspapers to cover these sort of eventualities is ever dwindling..

    Don’t pack away your crayons yet ladies ….