Video-conferencing threatens defendants’ rights and undermines trust in the justice system, says a report on the government’s push for virtual court hearings.
The report suggests that defendants involved in court hearings via video may be at a disadvantage during sentencing, due to difficulties communicating with their lawyers and an increased chance of poor concentration.
The report, from Transform Justice, comes as the courts pursue a £1bn modernisation programme to utilise technology for minor offences.
Although there are no immediate plans for trials without a defendant present, the number of remand, case management and sentencing hearings carried out via videolinks are expected to grow. Often, these videolinks connect police stations and prisons with courts.
Going forward, it’s believed remote hearings may also expand to enable lawyers to remain in their offices, speaking via video technology to clients in prison and judges in court.
The government hopes that the changes will save money and eliminate the need to transport defendants between prison and court. It’s also believed that such a technology push will enable lawyers to work more efficiently by reducing travel time.
However, a survey of around 300 court users – including magistrates, lawyers, probation officers and defendants – found that 58% of respondents believed appearing on video made it more difficult for defendants to understand and participate in courtroom discussions.
“Degrading the quality of human interaction”
Those opposing the changes fear that video technology could “degrade the quality of human interaction”.
The report says: “Nuances may be undetected, misunderstandings may go unnoticed. Empathy may be lost.”
It also warns that solicitors may need to overcome greater challenges in order to support their clients effectively.
Differences in defendant behaviour
An unnamed magistrate is quoted within the report saying that defendants on videolink often behave differently to those who attend court in person. The magistrate said: “Defendants appear disengaged and remote. They often give a nonchalant, poor account of themselves and we are left to infer that they couldn’t care less that they are disrespectful of the court.”
The report suggests that when separated by a screen, defendants’ respect of the court is reduced. There have been instances where defendants have shouted or walked out of the hearing.
It’s crucial that meetings between defendants and their lawyers are confidential but consultations via videolink are often ineffective due to inadequately soundproofed booths.
Concerns have been raised that video hearings could deprive some defendants of their right to a fair trial. For example, if a defendant has a disability that needs to be witnessed in person in order to fully be understood, conclusions could be drawn by a jury or judge that fail to take this into account.
Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice said: “Our report sounds a warning bell. If video justice disadvantages disabled people and risks undermining trust in the justice system, is it worth forging ahead with trial by Skype? It’s not clear what the cash savings are and closing our courts will be irreversible.”