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Home Video: The Virtual Court System in Criminal and Regulatory Proceedings

Whilst it may be no surprise to those within the criminal justice system that many defendants’ cases are conducted with the benefit of a Live Link, it is shocking to some that defendants do not always attend physically at the venue where their case is heard to take part in proceedings. Via the Live Link system, a defendant can be at a remote location, and still take part in their case via a camera and TV Screen allowing them to be seen in a court room. Live links were more historically employed in narrower circumstances and were perhaps most frequently used in instances where a defendant who was remanded in custody and required to attend at a hearing was, for various logistical reasons, unable to do so. This would usually be in very limited circumstances and would be limited to preparatory hearings or those of a 'lesser importance'.

Now however, Live Link technology is being expanded for use in far wider circumstances, and it is no longer unusual for defendants, witnesses and in some instances even Counsel to appear over the link rather than in person at a hearing. Not only are the frequency with which Live Links are used for preparatory hearings increasing, but reports of cases involving the use of Live Links in increasingly rare circumstances are becoming more common place. It has been reported for example, that a wheelchair-bound defendant, who was due to stand trial has been allowed to remain at her home address for the duration of the case, watching and engaging with the proceedings over the Live Link. Similar reports have also surfaced in respect of defendants suffering from serious issues such as Agoraphobia.

Whilst this is in no way 'the norm' for the court system, and however unlikely it may currently be that defendants without excellent reason (such as severe vulnerabilities or health concerns) would be afforded this same treatment (especially for the duration of a trial), it cannot be denied that there is a serious concern about the ability of a defendant to be involved in their own case when they appear over the Link and whether or not their ability to engage is helped or hindered by the use of technology such as the Live Link system.

What are the benefits of the system?

If the use of Live Links continues to expand in this manner, the concern is whether or not the benefits of the system outweigh the disadvantages. The report ‘Video Court: conveyor belt justice or revolution in access?’ examines in depth the benefits and disadvantages of the technology’s implementation and provides the results of a survey of some 300 court users from a wide spectrum of the Criminal Justice System. Concern is raised that the benefits of the use of the system - such as speed and cost effectiveness - are outweighed by issues such as a disconnection from the process, especially for those without legal representation and for those with vulnerabilities (which it may not be easy for a court to recognise over a Live Link).

Does the system work?

In instances where a Defendant is physically unable to attend at court, the link surely assists. How else, it could be asked, could an elderly defendant with mobility issues and health concerns travel to a court centre (which in some instances could be at the opposite end of the country) to engage in their case? It should not be overlooked however that whilst this 'virtual' involvement may be better than none whatsoever, it may not allow for such meaningful engagement as it would be expected that a defendant who is physically present may be able to have with their lawyers (where they are represented), and with the evidence adduced for and against them during a trial process.

Various pilot schemes involving the use of Live Link evidence are being tried with a view to being implemented across the country and it may be that for certain categories of witness, the Link is a more favourable option. In cases involving police witnesses for example, these pilot schemes have allowed officers to give evidence from the station at which they are based, thereby reducing the time that officers are waiting at court be called to give evidence, and allows the time they would otherwise have spent waiting and travelling to court on other business.

Use of the Live Link undoubtedly reduces the spending of the criminal justice system and is a cost effective way of dealing with a matter. The frequency and extent to which Live Links are forming part of a digital justice system is ever increasing and the practice growing ever more normalised. The question that should be asked however is at what cost does this convenience come, and is our justice system all the worse off for such a convenience?

Catherine Gaynor is a Solicitor in the business crime and regulatory team and can be contacted regarding concerns with any Criminal or Regulatory allegations you may be facing.

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