Skip to main content


Link Copied

Seen but not heard: is justice open if you can’t hear it?

Even when sitting right in the courtroom, court proceedings aren’t accessible.
Alexandra Kimmons
29 Aug 2023
It’s difficult to hear. The people in the court speak quietly to the judge, but I believe they should speak as if they are addressing the entire courtroom so that everyone can hear.
Volunteer courtwatcher

Since mid-July, trained CourtWatch London volunteers have been attending magistrates’ courts across the city putting the principle of open justice to the test.

Any member of the public is allowed to observe criminal hearings involving adult defendants in the magistrates’ courts. But in recent decades, few have exercised this right. Even news reporters scarcely visit the magistrates’ courts anymore. More often than not, the public gallery is empty or is occupied only by defendants’ family members or others involved in the hearing.

CourtWatch London seeks to change that, and to encourage members of the community to visit their local court and witness the justice process in action. But some among our first wave of volunteer courtwatchers have run into a very simple problem – they can’t hear what’s going on.

Courtwatcher Sanjay has observed 16 hearings in the last few weeks. He found that “the public area is screened off behind thick perspex or glass, which makes normal proceedings inaudible. The speaker which should have conveyed sound was switched off or was otherwise out of order.”

Courtwatcher Tim has had similar issues, noting that “it was almost impossible to hear anything that the CPS [prosecutor] said. However, more of what the defence lawyer said could be heard, as he was standing at a 45′ angle to the public gallery.”

When alerted to the issue, court staff have been very helpful, offering headsets to amplify volume, or allowing volunteers to sit closer to the action in chairs normally allocated for probation officers. But in some cases, even these efforts haven’t been enough for volunteers to catch crucial information, and hearing the hearings (!) has remained a problem.

Lawyers generally speak with their back to the public gallery, which is always going to make them difficult to hear. And although some courts are fitted with microphones and speakers, they are not always turned on. Perhaps the courts have grown accustomed to working without an audience.

Inaudible hearings not only undermine the principle of open justice for observers, but can also impede the participation of those directly involved. One CourtWatch volunteer noted that “the judge was unable to clearly hear the defendant saying his address and the need to repeat multiple times/shout appeared distressing for the defendant.”

And it’s not just sound issues that can prevent people exercising their right to observe proceedings. The lift in Croydon magistrates’ court has been out of order for most of August, limiting those for whom stairs pose an accessibility issue to only four ground-floor courtrooms.

We have let the relevant courts know about these issues, and were told that they are being investigated. In the meantime, our courtwatchers are continuing to attend hearings and share their insights with CourtWatch London.

If you’d like to join our team of courtwatchers, sign up here to find out more. A full report on courtwatchers’ observations will be published next year.