Guest blog: Gathering evidence on video justice

15 June 2017

Penelope Gibbs from Transform Justice explains why her organisation is gathering evidence from lawyers, judges and practitioners on the effect of video justice on vulnerable defendants. 

 Penelope Gibbs (Transform Justice)

Business people fly halfway around the world to have a meeting with someone, rather than have a video conference. Those they meet are articulate, educated people who may already know each other.  The video equipment available to them is state of the art. But they still feel that the quality of conversation will be better if everyone is in the same room - that the difference in outcomes is worth a huge amount of money and time.

I'm still not clear why the Ministry of Justice is mustard keen on virtual justice for defendants. Court and parole hearings involving those in prison are increasingly being conducted by video, as are first appearances when a defendant has been detained by the police. In most cases the defendant has no choice as to whether to appear by video or in person. 

Video appearances are justified as more convenient for defendants. This is true of prisoners, who are faced with getting up in the small hours, forgoing meals and travelling in a "sweat box" to court.  But the convenience of police station to court appearances is questionable. The van journey from police station to court is often quite short and a defendant may wait longer in the police station for a video slot than in getting a hearing when driven to court. 

The drive for video justice is partly about money, and partly about a belief that the traditional court process is old fashioned.  The traditional court process is old fashioned.  There is widespread support for better wi-fi, for easy access to digital case files, and for modern software to improve listings.  But the most modern of companies still send their staff huge distances to have meetings in real time in person. The quality of interaction between people is different if they are in the same space. 

The Ministry of Justice commissioned independent researchers to evaluate the virtual court pilot in London in 2010. This report showed police station to court justice to be at best cost neutral, at worst much more expensive than traditional justice.  But, more worryingly, it seemed to prejudice both access to justice and outcomes.  Even though there was no income threshold for legal aid for the pilot - all defendants had automatic approval to use legally aided lawyers - nearly half appeared unrepresented. Those who appeared on video were more likely to get a prison sentence and less likely to get a community sentence.

Since 2010 the Ministry of Justice have extended the reach of video court hearings and in February the Prisons and Courts Bill heralded an even greater expansion - this paved the way for criminal court hearings to be conducted entirely on video or entirely on the phone.  It is not clear whether these proposals will be revived by the new government, but one thing is certain - we need more information.  When the Bill was launched, Transform Justice and others expressed concern that there was no recent data or research on the effects of video justice.

To fill the information gap, Transform Justice is gathering evidence from lawyers, judges and practitioners on the effect of video justice on vulnerable defendants.  In some ways, all defendants are vulnerable, but we are particularly interested in those who have mental health problems, learning difficulties or disabilities, English as a second language or those who lack maturity. 

A magistrate has little good to say about video hearings: "The quality of the link is often poor. Sound can cut out or be distorted. One cannot always tell the extent to which the defendant is able to Engage with the process on the linkā€¦The ability to gauge body language can be lost. All parties are frustrated by the fact there are insufficient facilities to meet the demand. This means all parties have to wait long periods for cases to come on".  You may have better experiences of video justice for defendants.  We would like to know your views, positive or negative.

Please fill in this short anonymous survey and circulate to colleagues.

Penelope Gibbs, Director, Transform Justice