19 April 2012

Did broadcasting the Gilroy sentencing "open up" Scottish justice?

A slightly uncertain stage-presence, yesterday Lord Bracadale was recorded passing sentence on David Gilroy, convicted of murdering Suzanne Pilley. The law requiring the court to pass a life sentence, the judge determined that the “punishment part” of Gilroy’s sentence – before which he would is ineligible for parole – be set at 18 years. It was a quiet, precise decision on sentence, not a heavy, declamatory verdict viewers saw. No terrorising Braxfield, Bracadale’s delivery was understated, without many rhetorical flourishes, or tart moral denunciation of the prisoner’s actions. The hellfire tirade a hanging judge, it wasn’t.

Is this the “opening up” of Scottish justice? Did the footage afford an insight into the life of courts which a text transcript could not? Colour me sceptical, for a couple reasons. Firstly, what we saw was a bare – very bare – outcome of a process, not the process itself. For understandable reasons of sensitivity, the camera was perched in the empty jury box and fixed on the bench. The judge addresses the room, which was, I gather, thronging with people, but might have well been empty but for Bracadale, all we could discern in frame. The selectivity imposed by the camera even transfigured this event into untruth, of a sort. 

Of the evidence in chief and cross-examination, claim and counter-claim, summing up, and verdict which brought David Gilroy to “this sorry pass”, a sentencing statement affords not much insight at all. Remember that Bracadale’s statement was the also the conclusion of the sentencing hearing that morning, during which his defence representatives would have made submissions in mitigation. Again, none of this was shown, and the sentence was largely “unpicked” from its context – just as it is when the judicial prose appears in newspapers, or is read out by actors on the telly. 

My second qualm and note of caution respects selectivity. The broadcasting of Gilroy’s sentencing was owed in great part to the press’s interest in murder trials in general, and atypical murder trials in particular, STV petitioning the Lord President for permission to film in court. I don’t mean to be obtuse. Of course, I can understand why the media have a heightened interest in particular cases, and why others are neglected. It seems to me important, however, that we keep in mind the extent of the discrepancy separating proceedings provoking passionate media attention, and the day-to-day “reality” of the Scottish criminal justice system taken as a whole.

The latest (2011) statistics on court proceedings in Scotland show that some 137,000 people were prosecuted in Scottish courts during 2009-10. Scottish Government statisticians estimate 88% of those proceeded against were convicted of some charge. Of those convicted of some offence that year (120,772 people), which courts undertook the work? What percentage of cases are in the High Court, do you think? With juries, or without them? How many judges sitting alone? The pie chart below shows the breakdown for that year, which is not untypical for the past decade.


Notice that, despite the dominant impression the institution leaves on the public consciousness, jury cases made up just 4% of all Scottish cases where a charge is proved against the accused. To reorientate that detail another way, and to sharpen its surprise for those apt to prate on about the scandal of European trial by judges, 96% of people convicted of offences in Scotland see nary hide nor hair of a lay juror, except perhaps, as they dally about the court lobby.

If you are really interested in understanding the Scottish justice system in sum, you won’t do so by filming a murder trial in the High Court of Justiciary. On those 2009/10 figures again, homicide convictions constituted 115 of the 741 produced by the High Court: just 15.5% of them. Set in the broad context of Scottish criminal justice, murder convictions made up just 0.095% of all convictions that year. If we wish to understand Scottish justice aright, and know its day-to-day processes for what they are, STV would have to show as much enthusiasm for sending its crews into Justice of the Peace courts, and showing sheriffs working alone, as it expended on gaining a clip of Lord Bracadale yesterday, passing sentence.


  1. Yes, I would agree with this. Out of context it was quite a bizarre thing to want to televise. It seemed more like an extension of tweeting a sentence from court which was first allowed (I think) in 2011 for Sheridan.

    I like the televising of the Supreme Court arguments via Sky News website though this is probably trainspotting legal geekery. I dont think this would advance much knowledge on the general nature of the legal system. Useful for law students though.
    I didnt know until yesterday that despite all the Court TV emphasis in the States only 36 states of America televise trials and the Supreme Court and other Federal Courts are not televised at all.

  2. Is that cases actually resulting in a guilty verdict after proof, or cases having a guilty result regardless of how? From experience, vast majority of summary (JP & Sheriff) cases giving a conviction never go to trial but has a plea of guilty lodged after agreeing amendment of the charge with the PF.

  3. Nick,

    Interesting. Didn't know that about US states - though I'd have thought 36 of 50 broadcasting proceedings - which is, what, 70-odd percent? - was quite substantial in any measure. I'm enough of an anorak to know that US Supreme Court hearings aren't broadcast - because if they were, I'd almost certainly have seen one of them! The UK Court hearings have been interesting (in a legalistic way like to interest few ordinary folks, mad enough to try and following the tangled jurisprudential trails the advocates and judges go down).

    The good thing about it, it seems to me, is that exposure to it can disabuse you of certain mistaken pre-conceptions about the sort of process which goes on in courts. It demystifies and gives concrete examples of advocacy in live cases. Watching some of the Scottish appeals in London, I dare say manys the student mooter who feels rather less cowed - and overawed - by the letters QC, having seen their sometimes faltering performances...

  4. HL,

    A good question. The figures I've given relate to cases where the accused is convicted. As far as I'm aware, there are (regrettably) no public statistics published to distinguish within this group along the lines you ask about, between those who've been convicted after a proof from those who entered a guilty plea. That's an obvious deficiency, given the prevalence of "plea bargaining" - but beyond the wit of this blogger unilaterally to amend!

  5. Kathleen Caskie19 April 2012 at 20:23

    There is no plea bargaining in Scottish courts as it is commonly understood. In that, the sentencer is not involved or consulted. What there definitely is is charge bargaining, which is slightly different, but equally in the interests of expediency rather than justice. (I'm thinking of the rape victim who was supposed to be pleased when she was told there would be no trial because her attacker had pled guilty to the lesser charge of sexual assault. Many rape victims would have been pleased to have been saved the utter horror of giving evidence of course.)

    WRT the point about HighCourtItis - if the cameras spent the day in the District courts, and saw how justice ACTUALLY happened at that level, I think people would be utterly horrified.

  6. I got called for jury service a couple of years ago at the Sheriff Court. I was never picked but did get to see some sentencing. The Sheriff was almost understated in her delivery, especially when delivering a ten year extended sentence - that was a reality check.

    I think televising court proceedings could be worthwhile, but there is always the danger of those participating grandstanding for the cameras.

  7. I got called for jury service a couple of years ago at the Sheriff Court. I was never picked but did get to see some sentencing. The Sheriff was almost understated in her delivery, especially when delivering a ten year extended sentence - that was a reality check.

    I think televising court proceedings could be worthwhile, but there is always the danger of those participating grandstanding for the cameras.

  8. Groundskeeper Willie19 April 2012 at 22:49

    We've had TV cameras in court before now.

    I recall watching a case about a guy in Glasgow who had stolen a double decker bus and taken it for a spin. He was hoping for a not proven verdict which suggested he had a reasonable grasp of how the system operates.

    But if it's education for the lieges your after you'd be better to do an updated version of Sutherland's Law.

  9. Groundskeeper Willie,

    Right you are. On twitter, @loveandgarbage was telling me about a BBC (I think) series which was done a few years back, with episodes focussing on different aspects and areas of the criminal system. It was, unfortunately, before my time and I know of no publicly available recording of it. I've wittered on about the interest and possibility of a Scottish court drama series before. I may have to try my hand at writing it myself!