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Criminal Justice

Video courts: New report calls into question the rush towards virtual justice

My impression is that it’s a sausage machine-like process, where defendants are treated as numbers”.  Legal advisor on video hearings

The government plans to move away from court hearings in physical courtrooms towards trial by skype and even sentencing by telephone conference call.  Yet new research published today by Transform Justice – a charity which advocates for fair, humane, open and effective justice system – has found that video justice threatens defendants’ rights and undermines trust in the justice system.

It’s already standard practice for many defendants and prisoners to take part in a court hearing from prison or police station whilst they are on a video link and their lawyer and the judge are in the courtroom.  The Transform Justice research study (based on interviews and a survey of lawyers, magistrates and courts staff) found this “virtual justice” disadvantaged in particular disabled defendants, those with learning difficulties and those who don’t speak English as a first language.

Key findings:

  • 58% of those who took part in the survey thought appearing on video made it more difficult for defendants to understand what was going on in their court hearing and to participate
  • 70% of respondents said it was difficult to recognise whether someone who was on video had a disability
  • 74% said that those who had no legal representation were disadvantaged by appearing on video. (More defendants end up representing themselves if their first appearance is on video).

The expansion of virtual courts – from first appearance to sentencing – is a key government modernisation policy which, it is argued, will deliver cheaper, more efficient justice. However the only government evaluation of ‘virtual courts’ suggests that it is cheaper to get everyone together in a real court.

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. Modernisation and efficiency are great when they are in the interests of justice for all – defendants, witnesses, victims and the public.  Given the doubts as to whether these reforms do deliver access to justice, shouldn’t we put them on hold?”