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  • Writer's pictureRosie Burbidge

Court Room Recordings are not necessarily for Public Consumption

Lockdown boredom has caused recordings of meetings with irate characters or funny, and accidental, filters to become internet sensations. From the heated Handforth Parish Council meeting to the absurdly necessary declaration, “I am not a cat”, in a virtual US courtroom, the public clearly has an appetite for these farcical recordings.

However, it's important to remember that the basic rules on recording court hearings (i.e. don't do it) continue to apply in the digital realm. This applies even when court hearings are live streamed to the public.

In Finch, R (On the Application Of) v Surrey County Council [2021] EWHC 170 (QB), the BBC was fined £28,000 for contempt of court after including a short clip of a remote hearing as background footage in a news report. The judgment contains a useful summary of the legislation relating to recording proceedings generally and, in particular, the issues to be aware of in relation to remote hearings. It also provides guidance on the court’s approach to the appropriate penalty where, as here, the breach was held to be serious but of minimal harm and where an early admission of liability and apology were issued.

What's the worst that could happen?

Recording a court hearing is a criminal offence which is punishable by a fine and, if the recording is published without the court's authorisation, is potentially contempt of court. Because this has become such an issue over the last year, it is specifically dealt with in the Coronavirus Act 2020.

In this case, Surrey County Council was the subject of a BBC report. Although the court authorised specific individuals to watch the planning decision proceedings undertaken over Microsoft Teams, there was no permission to record it. A BBC reporter provided a link for technicians to record this meeting. There was a delay in providing access which meant that the BBC recorders missed the statement that a recording of the hearing would be contempt of court, this was still a breach.

As the BBC immediately reminded staff that this recording was not permitted and sought to prevent use of the recording and immediately removed of the clip from the news when it became aware of the problem, the fine was reduced to £28,000.

So remember to be careful when sharing the next courtroom sensation. The "not a cat" made it online with the express permission of the court and the various humans involved. This is the exception rather than the rule. It's also helpful to be reminded that if you do hold your hands up quickly when you make a mistake (as the BBC did) and take immediate steps to retrain and rectify the issue, it is possible to avoid more serious consequences.


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