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Gaining access to film a murder trial in Western Australia was a lengthy and difficult process, but one which has changed the way people view the legal system, according to the producers of the…

Gaining access to film a murder trial in Western Australia was a lengthy and difficult process, but one which has changed the way people view the legal system, according to the producers of the groundbreaking documentary On Trial.

Ian Collie and Michael Cordell began working on the idea of filming a documentary in the criminal jurisdiction almost five years ago and said it was a process rendered extremely difficult by the fact it had never been done before.

Eventually though, they were allowed to film various criminal trials - including a murder trial - in the Supreme Court of Western Australia and the District Court of New South Wales.

According to Collie, the result has been an "opening up" of a habitually closed and intimidating system.

"After having seen On Trial, people come away with a far more favourable impression of the criminal justice system, so I think that is a positive," he told Lawyers Weekly.

For Collie and Cordell, who have previously produced other legal documentaries for the ABC including A Case for the Coroner and DIY Law (about self-represented litigants in the civil jurisdiction), capturing the criminal jurisdiction on film was the pinnacle of legal documentaries - and one which was not easy to reach.

"We have done a number of court-based documentaries in the past ... so the criminal jurisdiction was almost like the last frontier," said Collie.

"We were initially approached to do it on a local court level, but in the end it got tricky, especially from the NSW Police point of view. We then went to the NSW District Court and the chief judge was very interested, so it went from there."

Collie said it took several years to negotiate with all the various stakeholders, from the Attorney-General's Department to the courts, the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Legal Aid Commission. Even once these negotiations were successful, however, the difficulties continued.

"Once we got in, we still needed to get everyone's permission, so often we'd have cases which would fall down at the 11th hour because we couldn't get the consent of some key people," he said.

It was these challenges which eventually led Collie and Cordell to Western Australia, where there was less red tape than Sydney and Melbourne and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Chief Justice Wayne Martin) who was very supportive of the idea.

"The Chief Justice was a big proponent of the transparency of justice, the accountability of the courts and having people see how justice really is done," said Cordell. "I think he is more progressive than some of his counterparts in other states."

According to Cordell, the fact that many courts are still reluctant to allow electronic media into the courtroom remains a source of wonder.

"The law and the courts are institutions which are fundamental to the workings of our Westminster system and democracy and justice," he said.

"At the same time, it has been very difficult for the electronic media to get access to the courts. My background is in journalism, so I have always found it a very stark contradiction that I can walk into a courtroom with a pen and a notepad and freely report on proceedings, but if I walk into that same court with a camera, the [rules] completely change. To me that is a real anomaly."

The final episode of On Trial screens tonight (30 June) on ABC1 at 8.30pm. For the in-depth version of this article, see Lawyers Weekly issue 541.

Claire Chaffey

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