Transform Justice has published a new report, Defendants on video – conveyor belt justice or a revolution in access?, which explores the use of video links in court. The Magistrates Association welcomes this report, which provides additional evidence of the potential risks to fair and effective justice if video link technology is used inappropriately. The MA has been consistent in raising concerns about the use of video links, and it is useful to read specific examples of some of the problems experienced in magistrates' courts.
The report draws attention not only to the practical issues presented by the implementation of video links, but the wider and more serious issues of how the use of technology can impact on a defendant's understanding of, and access to, the court proceedings which concern them. It is well established that magistrates' courts deal with some of the most vulnerable people in society, with a disproportionate number of defendants presenting with mental health needs, substance abuse problems or learning disabilities, all of which have the potential to impact on their fair and effective participation.
All defendants have a right to be able to effectively participate in a fair process and ensuring these rights in an individual case is the responsibility of the presiding bench. It is therefore important that the impact that the use of video technology may have on the defendant's ability to participate in the process is considered.
The MA particularly notes the conclusions drawn in the report in relation to children. While many children are familiar with - and skilled in - digital communication, this does not equate to their being comfortable with addressing serious matters over video link technology. As the Transform Justice report highlights, recent amendment 3N to the Criminal Practice Directions 2015 states that "in the youth court or when a youth is appearing in the magistrates' court or the Crown Court, it will usually be appropriate for the youth to be produced in person at court".
The MA's position is that video links for children should be considered on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the bench, informed by the appropriate member of the Youth Offending Team, and only used where it is in the best interests of the particular child concerned.
Commenting on the report, Malcolm Richardson, National Chairman of the Magistrates Association, said:
"There can be real benefits to the greater use of technology in the courts, but when it comes to the use of video links caution is required.
"Magistrates know that court users tend, much more than the population as a whole, to suffer from difficulties with learning, communication and mental health that restrict their ability to engage with us face-to-face. The use of video links risks exacerbating these challenges. Some victims and witnesses may also want to face the defendant - it should not be assumed that everyone wants to be in a video suite miles away.
"It is incumbent on all of us working in the justice system to ensure that no money is wasted in the running of our courts. But those designing the current court reform programme should remember the difference between efficiency and effectiveness and ensure that technology is used to support the running of fair, effective courts, not hinder it."