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Senior Courts of England and Wales

Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2020

I beg to move,

That the draft Court of Appeal (Recording and Broadcasting) (Amendment) Order 2020, which was laid before this House on 12 March, be approved.

The statutory instrument before the House today is intended to enable the inclusion of family proceedings within a pilot project testing the live-streaming of Court of Appeal hearings. The order advances the shared commitment between the Government and the judiciary to increase public engagement and understanding of the court system.

Currently, the recording and broadcasting of court proceedings in England and Wales is prohibited by section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 and section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. By virtue of section 23 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the Lord Chancellor, with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, can make an order in some circumstances lifting the prohibition. That was done in 2013 to allow the recording and broadcasting of proceedings in the civil and criminal divisions of the Court of Appeal. However, that was not extended to the family division. The order before the House today lifts the prohibition on broadcasting and recording hearings in the Court of Appeal in relation to family cases for the first time, thereby furthering our objective of opening up the visibility of justice.

Let me make it clear that whether or not a particular case is actually broadcast will remain a matter for the judge overseeing and hearing the case, so judicial discretion will apply. The confidentiality and anonymity of the parties will be maintained, so the names of any children or the names of parties to a divorce hearing will not be disclosed. Only the judges and the advocates will be broadcast. If by any chance there were a litigant in person, for example, or sensitive witness testimony, we would expect the judge not to allow that to be broadcast, although in the Court of Appeal it is very rare for any witnesses to appear; the arguments tend to be on points of law. So let me reassure the House that the confidentiality of the parties will be fully maintained.

I should add that this order makes no further change to any family proceedings and the confidentiality applying to those; it is simply about broadcasting. I notice the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is present, and I should add that this applies only to England and Wales; it does not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The order is a small but welcome step in the direction of further opening up our justice system and I commend it to the House.

I shall be brief; I have just a few comments and a couple of questions for the Government.

This is the fifth time that I have seen the Minister in the past four sitting days, as we have sat on our respective Front Benches, and the fourth time that he has the Opposition’s support for a piece of legislation. But neither I nor the Labour party are going to start going soft on the Tories. Far from it—as the Leader of the Opposition said when he was elected, when the Government get it right, we will support them, whilst holding them to account.

We on this side of the House have demonstrated in the past that we support measures such as the online streaming of public court cases to create a more transparent and fair justice system, and I hope the move towards supporting digital justice where possible extends well beyond coronavirus and becomes a substantial part of our justice system. But whether in court hearings or the recording of court proceedings, digital justice must be done properly and be seen to serve justice in every situation.

This instrument will facilitate live streaming of family Court of Appeal cases, allowing the broadcasting of judgments and advocates’ arguments in family cases in the Court of Appeal. It is a positive move, which will allow the public to see what happens in court in one of the most sensitive areas, and it will allow them to hear the decisions of judges in their own words.

I hope that Ministers may even take the opportunity of watching proceedings from the family court and others, particularly when people are forced to represent themselves in what are often complex legal matters because of the absence of legal aid. I hope that the Government will learn from the broadcasts and that they can find a way to make the system work more fairly and effectively.

Family proceedings are often regarded as insufficiently transparent, and this motion will go some way towards tackling that and helping people who are totally bamboozled by the whole court process. However, in such a move consideration must be given to matters such as protecting what are often some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Family court cases can involve highly emotional and sensitive matters and we must take seriously even any potential issues relating to safeguarding. The Minister has talked about that, but I ask him to say a little more about the safeguarding processes that will be in place to meet the need to protect these people while making this move to greater transparency.

Steps must also be taken to address the digital divide in our society and to ensure that, by opening up justice for people to engage with, we do not just find ourselves in a situation where people are excluded because they do not have the appropriate equipment to access it. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that. Ultimately, though, we welcome the steps that this order is taking and look forward to working with the Government to ensure that justice is even more open and transparent.

I thank the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman for the constructive and thoughtful approach he has been taking this week, and I look forward to that continuing for many months and years to come. I shall briefly answer his principal questions. On the matter of digital access to courts more generally, I completely concur with everything he said. We are absolutely committed to expanding and extending digital access. In particular, the roll-out of the cloud video platform, which is happening as we speak and due to be completed in the Crown courts and magistrates courts by the end of this month, is a critical part of that. I am glad that we can work together in pushing that programme even further.

I am really keen to see the system that is coming in for England and Wales being used in Northern Ireland when the opportunity arises. Is it possible that discussions could take place with the police and justice authorities and through the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that this pilot scheme could also be done in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. Those matters are in the hands of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, but I would certainly be happy to pass on to the Northern Ireland Justice Minister the lessons that we are learning from the jurisdiction in England and Wales, and I would of course encourage them to follow the same path that we are treading if they wished to do so.

On the question of safeguards, the key safeguard in all this is the control that the judge exercises in how a case is conducted. It is still a matter for judicial discretion whether any individual case can be streamed and broadcast. As I said in my opening remarks, we would expect judges not to livestream cases where a litigant in person was present or if there was witness testimony where the identity of the witness might be a matter of sensitivity. We are, as we often do, entrusting to the judge the sensible and safe management of any individual case. With that, I commend this order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Order. I consider that there is no need to suspend the House on this occasion, as I observe that everyone who is intending to leave has now left, and everyone who is intending to be present is now present. So we will proceed immediately to motion No. 3 on Exiting the European Union (Civil Aviation).