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NZ cameras in court experiment 'failed'

Judges show their concern about media cameras in and around courtrooms. Photo / NZPA
Judges show their concern about media cameras in and around courtrooms. Photo / NZPA

Fears expressed by the UK's top judge that having cameras "swanning around" courtrooms will lead to judges being booed and heckled are unfounded, a prominent Auckland lawyer says.

The United Kingdom is following New Zealand's lead and will allow high-profile cases to filmed in Crown Courts and the Court of Appeal in a bid to open up the judicial process.

But the UK's Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge, warned that allowing such broadcasts would lead to judges being booed and heckled when verdicts were announced, the Daily Mail reported.

"I'm very troubled about having cameras just swanning around," he said, adding that there had been problems in New Zealand.

"Everybody thought that if you fixed the camera on the judge then it would be all right, but of course people can demonstrate during the sentencing remarks, so there are cheers and boos. We have to be very careful how it works."

Auckland defence lawyer Marie Dyhrberg said New Zealand had no such problems.

"I think he will find that his concerns will really, in practice, be without foundation. If it's based on our experience, there are very, very few breaches and very few problems that interfere with a fair trial and justice.

"Real outbursts are few and far between, given the number of cases that go through New Zealand's court rooms. Judges allow some sort of emotional response but they shut them down pretty quickly so cameras in court aren't going to be responsible for outbursts, nor are they going to be an impediment for judges to control the courts in the way that they normally have," she said.

A panel of judges is currently reviewing New Zealand's cameras in court policy, which was adopted in 1995.

It is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Judith Collins said the minister supported the review of the policy and declined to comment on Lord Judge's comments.

Bay of Plenty lawyer and former Law Society president Jonathan Temm said his issue was the way television media sensationalised court proceedings.

"Look at the [Clayton] Weatherston trial in Christchurch. Seeing his face on our evening news night after night, showing in a minute and a half what was five hours of evidence with a voice-over by a reporter full of adjectives.

"Or Antoine Dixon - every time you talk about that man all we ever recall is the crazy-eyed guy in the dock. Television just portrays an image that it wants to convey to its public.

"There are murder trials going on every single week in New Zealand, but the television media select which ones they are going to give priority to. They choose those ones and then they drive their own agenda," he said.

New Zealand's courts gave cameras unprecedented access, and it did not work, Mr Temm said.

"New Zealand has been an experiment and it has failed."

Mr Temm said he would support unedited, live-streaming of court proceedings, like that of parliamentary coverage.

Media Freedom Committee chairman Tim Murphy said there had been very few issues with cameras positioned in courts to televise hearings.

"Judges set clear rules, case by case, and any reaction to a verdict or sentencing which might have been heard on the tape would in all likelihood have occurred without a camera in the courtroom.

"New Zealand's judges are about to review the cameras in courts agreement after some concern from judges, lawyers and the justice minister about the use of imagery from three high-profile murder trials.

"That is three, exceptional cases of high public interest and notoriety, from many hundreds filmed over the years. And there has been no suggestion justice has been compromised in any of the cases prompting the review. On the contrary, for nearly 20 years the cameras in courts programme has allowed New Zealanders to see their courts in action and been another step towards open justice, which should be celebrated," Mr Murphy said.

* Tim Murphy is editor-in-chief of Herald titles

- NZ Herald

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