I REMEMBER the first time I entered a criminal court as a cub reporter.
Previously, I'd been lucky enough to avoid it as witness, complainant or defendant, but simply entering as an observer was a slightly intimidating experience.
It was Mold Crown Court and I was there to observe a rape case.
Even in a relatively modern building, it’s an imposing room with a high ceiling, wood-panelled walls and the Royal coat of arms mounted above where the judge or magistrates sit.
Until then, like many people, the only reference I had of a court in action was from TV dramas or televised trials beamed over from the US.
With rare exceptions, court cases are open to the public. In Mold, a mezzanine floor provides a viewing gallery in both court rooms – although it is not often full.
Until last week, live filming or broadcast recording in UK courts was banned, except at the Supreme Court.
That ban has now been partially lifted but only for the Court of Appeal, the second highest court in the land.
For the first time, actual court proceedings at this level will be accessible to members of the public at the touch of a button, although only the lawyers’ arguments and judges’ statements will be broadcast.
This a luxury our American cousins have enjoyed for many years but whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate.
In July, UK Justice Minister Damian Green said the Government might extend camera access to sentencing decisions in crown court cases ‘in due course’.
Lesley Griffin, 43, of Wrexham, who was called up as a witness at Mold Crown Court in 2011, fears that this could be the start of a slippery slope toward a US-style ‘media circus’ or, worse still, could intimidate those involved in the trial.
She said: “I don’t agree with it. It’s intimidating enough being a witness at crown court. Barristers will showboat for the cameras. It is the beginning of the end for British justice.”
Of her own experience, she said: “It was daunting from the start. Obviously the victim was very upset, being called up was stressful. I felt nervous knowing I was going to be up there.
“I went in the day before so they could show me round the court. The officials do everything they can to make it less scary. You get to know the ushers and the court recorders, where to sit and so on. But it’s still terrifying.
“You have to wait in a little room until you are called. Then you sit in a room just off the court, still waiting.
“All the time your heart is going because you have no idea what kind of questions they will ask you.”
Giving evidence, being cross-examined by lawyers and trying to recall the facts was already difficult enough, she said.
“Knowing that cameras are there, or could be there, even if they aren’t filming you, could put even more pressure on.
“I think this most definitely is a move toward more openness, but whether that's a good thing, I don't know.
“I remember the OJ Simpson trial. It became a circus. This is just opening a can of worms. It detracted from the seriousness of a case and if we move that way, the same could happen here.”
Lesley said she was very much in favour of open justice and was sceptical about the use of injunctions and private hearings but thought filming proceedings was a step too far.
The US system has indeed spawned a series of courtroom regulars who are almost celebrities in their own right, like Judge Judy, beloved of daytime TV fans.
We’re a long way from that yet but Melissa Griffiths, a solicitor who deals in criminal law for Allington Hughes in Wrexham, also had concerns.
She said: “I don’t agree with it. There are facilities in court for those people who want to sit and observe if they want to and they work perfectly well.
“Just having TV cameras in would alter the atmosphere in the court. It would influence how somebody performs, whether they are being questioned or there to represent a client.
“The business of lawyers is to deal with law properly. With cameras there, other considerations would inevitably slip in. I don’t see this as a step forward at all.”
However, Stephen Warburton of Thomas, Andrews & Partners, also in Wrexham, thought it was a way of opening up what is, to some, a mysterious process.
He said: “I believe court proceedings should be made more open. Courts are open but, as far as most people are concerned, they are almost like secret meetings.
“Although anyone can sit in the gallery, most people don’t have the time to observe during the week. That would change if they could just press ‘record’ and watch it later.”
Mr Warburton said that there was some concern that lawyers would be tempted to play up to cameras and that this performative aspect could eclipse the real business at hand.
He said: “From what I've seen of Judge Judy, it is a bit of a farce. We wouldn’t want to see that at all.
“But I believe in Britain we would still retain the formality of court proceedings.
“I also believe witnesses and victims would be protected. We don’t want to go down the track where people are scared to go to court.”
Mr Warburton quoted Lord Chief Justice Hewart’s famous phrase.
He said: “Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done. And it will be, if it’s opened up even more to public scrutiny.”