Labour shadow cabinet ministers have called on the Justice Secretary to uphold livestreaming of court cases during and beyond the coronavirus outbreak.
Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy and Shadow Attorney General Lord Falconer (both pictured) wrote to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland on Friday (May 1) urging him to allow both members of the public and press to watch cases online.
However, yesterday the Courts Minister Chris Philp told the Commons Justice Committee that “members of the public and journalists are able to contact the court and ask to be able to participate in a remote hearing to view what’s going on”.
He added that public galleries, subject to social distancing, are still open in 159 courts. Still, 85% of cases are being conducted by video or phone link.
The Society of Editors has been working alongside HMCTS’s media working group to protect the principles of open justice during the covid-19 outbreak.
In Labour’s letter – which called for long-term, systemic changes to the justice system – Lammy and Lord Falconer said, “In order to maintain open justice, it is imperative that all criminal hearings must remain open to the public.
“If it isn’t possible for the public to physically attended hearings, the government must act urgently to ensure that the public are given alternative access.”
The exceptions to this would be certain family, criminal and youth cases.
The letter added that, “Once these reforms are in place, there can be no turning back. Streaming court cases online is a reform we should keep.”
HMCTS is currently working with the Ministry of Justice in a £1bn large-scale reform programme to modernise the delivery of justice in England and Wales.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice responded to Labour’s letter saying: “Judges and staff deserve huge credit for keeping dozens of courts open during this pandemic, and have overseen a vast increase in video and audio hearings.
“The public can be confident that we are doing everything possible to ensure justice is still seen and heard, for instance through remote hearings.
“While jury trials were suspended to protect the public, we are working closely with the judiciary and others to resume them as soon as possible.”
Yesterday, Press Gazette reported that journalists had complained of being unable to listen to court proceedings regarding Wikileaks founder Julian Assange which took place via telephone link. The next stage of the Wikileaks founder’s extradition hearing has since been delayed.