First televised sentencing to make legal history at Old Bailey

Cameras will broadcast from Old Bailey for first ever UK televised sentencing tomorrow when paedophile learns his fate for stabbing his grandfather to death

  • A 2020 change in the law means that cameras can now film sentencing remarks
  • The first televised sentencing will be a manslaughter case at the Old Bailey
  • Convicted paedophile Ben Oliver, 25, stabbed his grandfather to death in 2021

Legal history will be made at the Old Bailey tomorrow as for the first time ever a sentencing hearing will be televised, the Ministry of Justice has announced.

On Thursday (July 28), Judge Sarah Munro QC is expected to be filmed as she passes sentence on 25-year-old convicted paedophile Ben Oliver for the manslaughter of his grandfather, 74.

A change in the law in 2020 allowed cameras to enter Crown Courts, but implementation was delayed due to the pandemic. 

Judge Munro, who presided over the high-profile inquest of the four victims of serial killer Stephen Port, was among an intake of female judges in recent years that brought gender parity to the Old Bailey for the first time.

The footage will be broadcast on leading UK news channels and made available online.

It will open up some of the most high-profile courts and allow the public to see and hear judges explain the reasoning behind their sentences.

Convicted paedophile Ben Oliver was accused of murdering his grandfather (pictured), David Oliver, 74, in his home in Mottingham, south London 

Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has hailed the move as a ‘very positive’ step in promoting open justice

Oliver was arrested at the property he shared with his grandparents David and Susan Oliver

Lord Chief Justice said: ‘The broadcasting of the sentencing remarks will focus solely on the judge who will be sitting in court in the normal way, wearing his or her robes in the normal way’

Only the judge will be filmed during any sentencing to protect the privacy of victims, witnesses and jurors.

Oliver killed his grandfather after he discovered historic allegations that he sexually abused young girls.

During his trial in May, the Old Bailey heard how the pensioner was bedbound and immobile after suffering a stroke years before.

Prosecutor Louis Mably QC told jurors: ‘He was attacked and killed as he lay helpless in bed, in his bedroom on the first floor of the house.

‘He had been repeatedly stabbed and slashed with a knife in the face, and in particular in the neck, which had effectively been cut open.

‘It was a brutal attack, plainly carried out with the intention of killing him.’

Mr Mably said the identity of the killer was not disputed and Ben Oliver had told his grandmother, Susan Oliver, what he had done immediately afterwards.

Jurors heard that Oliver had been ‘very close’ with his grandparents and had his own room at their house.

He said the issue for the jury was the defendant’s mental state at the time and whether his responsibility was diminished, meaning he was guilty of manslaughter and not murder.

Mr Mably told jurors that the defendant grew up in ‘troubled and difficult times’.

In 2016, Ben Oliver was convicted of sexual offences against a young girl when he was aged 15, the court was told.

He was released from youth detention in September 2019. 

The court heard Oliver was on anti-depressants, had thoughts of suicide and instances of self-harming at the time of the killing.

Mr Mably said: ‘He was a troubled and angry young man.’

The 25-year-old defendant from Bexleyheath, south London, admitted the manslaughter of 74-year-old David Oliver, in Mottingham, south London, on January 19 last year. 

Ben Oliver was said to have Autistic Spectrum Disorder, which combined with other emotional and mental factors, diminished his responsibility for the killing.

Oliver was ultimately found guilty by jury of manslaughter, and not murder. His sentencing tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new era for British justice.

Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: ‘Opening up the courtroom to cameras to film the sentencing of some the country’s most serious offenders will improve transparency and reinforce confidence in the justice system.

‘The public will now be able to see justice handed down, helping them understand better the complex decisions judges make.’

Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Burnett of Maldon, hailed the move as a ‘very positive’ step in promoting open justice.

He said: ‘It’s something that I was really keen should happen and I started working on it when I became Lord Chief Justice in 2017.

‘I think it’s an exciting development, because it will help the public to understand how and why criminals get the sentences that they do in these very high-profile cases.’

Cameras already operate in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court but bringing them to the Crown Court is a ‘significant development’, he said.

Despite the bar on TV in criminal courts, in 2004 a few cases in the Court of Appeal were filmed on a trial basis. The Supreme Court allowed it in 2009 and filming in the Court of Appeal has become common since 2013. 

Filming or taking pictures in or in the vicinity of a Crown Court case in the UK had been banned from 1925. 

Prior to this, photographs within court rooms had been allowed, and the infamous Dr Crippen is perhaps the most well-known example.

He was photographed in court while on trial for murdering his wife – which he was eventually found guilty of before being hanged in Pentonville Prison on 1910. 

‘Sentencing of serious criminal cases is something in which there is a legitimate public interest. 

‘And it’s always seemed to me that this is a part of the criminal process, which can be recorded and broadcast in many cases, but not all, without compromising the administration of justice or the interests of justice.’

He countered critics of bringing cameras into criminal courts by saying judges already pass sentences in open court, with the press and public present.

He added: ‘The broadcasting of the sentencing remarks will focus solely on the judge who will be sitting in court in the normal way, wearing his or her robes in the normal way.

‘The solemnity of the proceedings are preserved entirely.’

But he stopped short of advocating televising trials, saying: ‘My own but fairly strong view is that what we see happening around the world illustrates why that can be quite damaging.

Dr Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on trial in London, 1910. Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen murdered his second wife Belle Elmore at their home in London. After being found guilty at the Old Bailey, he was hanged at Pentonville on 23rd November 1910

‘The thing about sentencing remarks is that broadcasting those doesn’t have an impact on the way witnesses and others involved in the trial process – complainants, victims and so on – are immediately affected.

‘If you broadcast the trial proceedings themselves, it’s very difficult to avoid that.’

But critics of the plans argue not even sentencing remarks should be broadcast. 

The law change did receive cross party support, despite some resistance in the House of Lords.

While Labour former attorney general Lord Morris of Aberavon welcomed the ‘putting our toes in the water’ approach, former Conservative minister Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth welcomed the change but warned about the risk of creating ‘celebrity judges’.

He told the Lords: ‘We don’t want a Disneyland legal forum as they have in the USA.’ 

Among broadcasters planning to televise Oliver’s case tomorrow, Sky, BBC and ITN will be able to apply to film and broadcast sentencing remarks.

John Battle, head of legal and compliance at ITN, and chairman of the Media Lawyers Association, said it was a ‘landmark moment for open justice’.

‘This reform reflects the public’s right to see justice being done in their courts.

‘Court reporting is vital to democracy and the rule of law and this long overdue change is welcomed,’ he said.

John Ryley, head of Sky News, said: ‘Filming judges’ sentencing remarks in the Crown Court of England and Wales is a victory for the viewer.

‘It will allow for greater transparency in our courts and is something that broadcasters, including Sky News, have campaigned for more than a decade to achieve.’

Interim director of BBC News Jonathan Munro said: ‘Justice must be seen to be done, so this is a crucial moment for transparency in the justice system – and for our audiences, who will be able to understand the judicial process better by witnessing it for themselves.’

Joe Pickover, head of video at PA said it was a ‘crucial milestone’.

He said: ‘Audiences across the UK will gain a much better understanding of the criminal process by witnessing the judicial system first hand, and PA is delighted to be playing its part in this vital development.’

The Central Criminal Court in London routinely hears some of the most complex cases, including murders and terrorism trials.

The sentencing of Ben Oliver will take place in Court Two, one of the Old Bailey’s oldest courtrooms.

What will cameras in courtrooms actually mean? 

Legal history will be made at the Old Bailey on Thursday with the first televised sentencing

Cameras will start to roll on Thursday (July 28) to broadcast a sentencing at the Old Bailey for the first time. So just what does this mean for the UK’s justice system?

What will be shown on television? 

Restrictions on cameras in court are still very strict. Only the judge will be visible on the broadcast, and only for their sentencing remarks. There will be no view of the defendant in the dock, lawyers or any other court staff.

How has the law changed to allow this to happen? 

Under the Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020, High Court and Senior Circuit judges are permitted to be filmed as they hand out penalties in criminal cases. It has not happened yet due to the pandemic and focus on reducing the court backlog.

What was the law before?

In 1925, a ban was introduced on any photographs or filming in or in the vicinity of a courtroom. Though not a criminal offence, contempt of court can still result in a prison sentence.

For example, in July 2019, ex-English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson was jailed for nine months for contempt of court – although not for filming inside court. The case – again heard in Court Two of the Old Bailey – found he had interfered with the trial of a sexual grooming gang at Leeds Crown Court in May 2018 by live-steaming a video outside court in breach of reporting restrictions.

Prior to 1925, photographs had been allowed in courtrooms, most famously in the case of Dr Crippen, who was hung for the murder of his wife in 1910.

Can anyone now film sentencing remarks? 

No. It is still prohibited to film or take pictures in court in ordinary circumstances and any member of the public caught doing so risks being found in contempt of court. This is also true for anyone joining a hearing by video link. 

Filming is allowed in other nations’ criminal courts – why not in the UK?

The British legal system takes great pains to prevent any risk to the administration of justice.

If filming trials was routine, vulnerable witnesses and victims could be put off giving their evidence. It could also increase distress to young defendants and victims’ families. There could be a danger in cases where one or more persons’ identities are lawfully concealed – particularly in cases involving youths. 

Who will be airing the sentencing remarks? 

Sky News, BBC, ITN and the PA news agency will broadcast the footage and make it available online. 

Before a ban came into place in 1925, photographs were allowed inside courtrooms in the UK – such as this one, hearing the case of Dr Crippen (left) and lover Ethel Le Neve

Who is the judge involved in the first case? 

Senior Circuit Judge Sarah Munro QC has sat at the Old Bailey since 2017 and has extensive experience in presiding over complex and high profile cases, including homicides.  

How will it be decided which high-profile cases to cover next? The group of broadcast media will be able to apply to film and broadcast sentencing remarks, with the judge deciding whether to grant the request. 

Will there be cameras in any other Crown Courts in England and Wales? 

The first sentencing will be at the Old Bailey, but sentences should also soon be televised from other high-profile Crown Courts. 

What about other courts?

The Supreme Court allowed the filming of sentencing remarks in 2009 and filming in the Court of Appeal has become common since 2013. Magistrates’ Courts remain unaffected by the new law.

Will the the judge still wear traditional gown and wig on television? 

Yes. Judges and barristers still wear wigs in court, even though there was a brief relaxation of the rules for video link hearings during the pandemic. Some say wigs are old fashioned and should be scrapped, but many consider them essential to maintain formality and respect for the court, while differentiating lawyers from the general public. 

How do televised sentencings benefit the public? 

People will experience the courtroom setting first-hand and see and hear judges explain the reasoning behind their sentences. 

The jury system relies on ordinary members of the public, who may have had little or no previous experience of the legal system before being called for jury service. Better understanding of what happens in court promotes confidence. 

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