Research calls into question rush towards virtual justice

Video justice threatens defendants’ rights and undermines trust in the justice system, according to a report published today by a national charity.

The Transform Justice research found that appearing in court via videolink rather than in person disadvantaged defendants, particularly those with disabilities or learning difficulties and those who do not speak English as a first language.

An online survey of 180 practitioners found that 58% thought appearing on video made it more difficult for defendants to understand what was going on in court or participate in hearings.

More than two thirds (70%) said it was difficult to recognise whether someone who was on video had a disability and 74% said that those without legal representation were disadvantaged by appearing on video.

Video hearings from prison and police station to court, and from prison to parole board are seen as quicker, cheaper and more convenient. They have gradually increased over the last decade and the government plans to increase the use of online and telephone justice.

But Transform Justice warned that the practice has ‘profound implications’ for the way the court, and justice itself, is perceived, and for the relationship between a lawyer and their client.

It called for a halt to the expansion of videolink hearings until research has been done to assess its impact on juries, judges and defendants.

The report, Defendants on video – conveyor belt justice or a revolution in access?, recommended a reassessment of the suitability of video hearings for those with mental health problems and intellectual disabilities, those with English as a second language, unrepresented defendants and children.

It also called for an improvement in the quality of the video service and guidance to help judges, magistrates and legal advisers determine whether it should be used for vulnerable defendants and what reasonable adjustments might be required.

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?’

She said: ‘Modernisation and efficiency are great when they are in the interests of justice for all – defendants, witnesses, victims and the public.’

But, added: ‘Given the doubts as to whether these reforms do deliver access to justice, shouldn’t we put them on hold?’

A roundtable discussion with a range of participants, including lawyers, magistrates, academics, an intermediary and liaison and diversion workers, found mixed views. A legal advisor on video hearings said: ‘My impression is that it’s a sausage machine-like process, where defendants are treated as numbers.’

A prosecutor said: ‘Psychologically, it is easier to do something negative to someone when they are not physically present. When I prosecute a bail matter, I prefer the defendant to be on the link. When I defended, I always sought to have the defendant present in court, so the judge or magistrates would have to refuse bail “to their face”.’

While a magistrate said: ‘In my experience prison to court video links have enabled defendants to participate in the same way as if they were in court. They have not been disadvantaged, nor advantaged. It results in fewer delays because of …vans being caught in traffic or incorrect prisoner transport paperwork.’

Professor Mike Hough of the Institute of Criminal Policy Research, said in the foreword to the report: ‘For most citizens, court appearances constitute rare and important moments of interaction with the power of the state. It could prove a costly mistake to penny-pinch when orchestrating these moments.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘We are investing more than £1bn to transform and modernise our court system. We know video hearings reduce court time, improve public safety and save money for the taxpayer. Videolink technology is also being used to make the court process easier for thousands of vulnerable victims and witnesses.’

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