‘Trial by Skype’: Soon to be a (virtual) reality?

Wed 3rd Jan 2018

Many criminal practitioners are now familiar with court hearings being conducted by video link, but this month a new report by Transform Justice suggests that the increased use of video hearings may threaten access to justice.

The number of hearings conducted by video link has been steadily increasing over the last decade. In February 2012, the Ministry of Justice announced that video hearings were being extended in a number of courts across the country, as part of Criminal justice reform. The announcement focussed on a key positive; that video hearings are able to speed up court cases. They reduce the requirement to transport prisoners between prison and court on a regular basis, increase court flexibility and increase the number of cases that are heard on the day of charge, meaning a reduction in the time from charge to first hearing.

Moving forward five years and many, if not all, practitioners will have participated in a video link hearing. It is reported that in 2016/2017 more than 137,000 cases were conducted by video link in England and Wales.

It cannot be denied that video link hearings certainly have their uses. Many defendant’s in custody would prefer not to be produced at court for smaller hearings, which may lead to upheaval for them, prison vans may arrive late (or go to the wrong court centre altogether!), court hearings are slowed down, witnesses and courts can be kept waiting. Many practitioners may agree that smaller administrative hearings are suitable to be conducted by use of a video link.

However, in October 2017 Transform Justice published a report ‘Defendants on video – conveyor belt justice or a revolution in access‘  by Penelope Gibbs.

Ms Gibbs warns that although advancements in technology (such as the use of video hearings) are convenient and potentially cost saving – this gain in convenience can impact upon a defendant’s access to justice.

The report responds to proposals in the, now obsolete, Prison and Courts Bill 2017 which sought to expand the use of video hearings; moving towards a so called ‘trial by Skype’.

In summary, the report raises the following issues:

  • Teething Problems’ – In order to be effective, virtual participants need to see and hear what is going on and systems need to be 100% reliable and effective.
    In a recent survey commissioned by the judiciary, more than half the respondents said that the quality of IT equipment, including live links, was poor. Negative experiences include instances where sound or vision is not available or defendants are not produced from their cell.
  • Underestimating the cost of human interaction – The report argues that video hearings degrade the quality of human interaction. There may be difficulties reading body language or gauging the general atmosphere in court, which could impact upon a defendant’s behaviour. Advocates may find it difficult building a rapport with a defendant over a video link or it may be harder to recognise when a defendant has a disability or support needs – all of which can impact upon an advocate’s ability to represent their client effectively.
  • Effective Participation – For many defendants court appearances can be stressful; defendants are often vulnerable and sometimes criminal proceedings can have life changing consequences. The report outlines that appearing on video link can increase a defendant’s feeling of stress or isolation and has the potential to reduce a defendant’s understanding of and respect for the court process.

There is no current data or up to date research as to whether ‘virtual justice does make a difference to justice outcome’ and there are clearly benefits to conducting video hearings, but as we move closer to ‘trial by Skype’ becoming a (virtual) reality, this report seeks to reminds us that, ‘…convenience is [only] great when all other things are equal’.




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