A Case for Open and Televised Hearings

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Saad Masood

Technology, in general, and social streaming services, in particular, has made it simpler to get live feeds to the general masses

Imagine two opposing parties slugging it out in a court of law and then both accepting the ruling wholeheartedly afterwards. Imagine indicted individuals coming to court or jail without displaying victory signs. Imagine the truth actually coming out during a hearing. Imagine the competence, or lack thereof, of the prosecution and defence open for public display. Imagine the good, bad and ugly of testimonies exposed in broad daylight. Imagine you shall! Because in Pakistan, none of it has ever come to pass. Will that change? Perhaps, but not without much effort. Consider the subsequent hypothesis.
Hearings are an integral part of any society that trusts its justice system. Whether it is the NAB, the general courts or other tribunals – the testimony of individuals and the performance of the legal staff underpins the faith in the consequent result. And against this backdrop, there is a case to be made for open and televised hearings.
We are a ‘public opinion society’. It is said that the public’s perception of justice impacts the courts, the laws, the judges, and principally the democratic process. So the question to be asked is this, what influences the public’s perception of justice? The answer is television! Or more strictly, televised justice! For the majority of us, information on the justice process is obtained through television – mostly fictional and therewithin lies the issue. If we are to learn from television then let us not rely on fiction alone, let us also – and mostly – bank on non-fiction information emanating directly from the premises where hearings are being conducted.
Moreover, there are at-least six broad advantages of having open and televised hearings. One, it opens the courts – and its arbitrators – to public scrutiny. This will expose jurors, witnesses, lawyers and judges either in a good way or a bad way. People will see with their own eyes if the defence or prosecution is weak or strong, who is well or poorly prepared and which individuals narrate the truth or parrot lies on the witness stand. The audience will be able to see who is under pressure and who is breezing through the debate. Never again both parties will be able to claim victory at the end of every court day. This is what happens today! Without any prejudice or hesitation, everyone coming out of the courtroom nowadays claims success and the public is dumbfounded who to believe?! Two, accused who routinely flash signs of victory when coming to court houses will not be able to do so. That is because the audience would know – without much of a shadow of a doubt – the true nature of the crime and the likelihood of conviction. Three, open and televised hearings can educate the public instead of the fictional – and likely blemished – version of court proceedings. In this way, a far more accurate understanding of the judicial system will be in play which will have a positive impact on the democratic process and the social system it supports. Four, justice seen is justice served! The general population has the right to ‘see’ justice being done as that is the only way to ensure faith in the system of justice. Five, studies done in the US suggest that the introduction of cameras in the courtroom generally tends to have no detrimental impact on trials and resulting decisions. Six, the justice process being televised means that parties will by and large have to accept the result wholeheartedly as they wouldn’t be able to mislead the public any further!
Like any other crucial issue, open and televised hearings also have arguments against it albeit with a conceivably valid answer for each. One, witnesses and victims can be identified and harassed. Answer: the argument is to make the process transparent and televised but the identity of witnesses and victims to remain secret and guarded, as done today. Two, all court personnel included can grandstand and become star-struck. Answer: this is relatively true and natural but perhaps the benefit of a publicised process outweighs this risk and besides, in due time – and when this becomes routine – it will be less and less of an issue. Three, live feeds from courtrooms will generate sound bites and sensationalism. Answer: Unfortunately this happens even today and especially in the era of 24-hour news channels and incessant reporting. Four, sensitive issues – such as matters of national security – can come to the fore. Answer: as done today, hearings such as these are done behind closed doors and so it shall be the case even when hearings are televised. Also, there can easily be priority parameters that define which hearings will be televised and which will not. For example, and as a first, it can start with all political cases! Then others can follow.
Technology in general and social streaming services, in particular, has made it ever simpler to get live feeds to the general masses. Where it may have been difficult yesterday, it has become relatively easy today. Like any new initiative, there will always be a teething issue at the start but that shouldn’t force us to abandon the notion of open and televised hearings. On the contrary, we should embrace this paradigm with the intention that it will definitely provide benefits to all and sundry and will help society as a whole. It is most important, as Lord Chief Justice Hewart said, “Justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done!”