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April 20, 2018

“Children don’t appreciate they are in court, not on a computer game”

How can it be that vulnerable child defendants have ended up participating in important court hearings via a video screen? Recently a seventeen year old child who had been in foster care was given a ten year sentence on video link. He had been in court during the hearing, so its not clear why the judge decided he should sentence on video. It is likely that his social worker, YOT worker and lawyers were all in the court in London, while he sat in a prison room, accompanied only by a prison officer, hearing his fate.

The arguments against having child defendants participate in court hearings on video are clear – child defendants already struggle to participate in court hearings, particularly Crown Court hearings, when they are there in person. They don’t understand legal language or the implications of decisions. They often leave court having no understanding of the sentence they’ve received or why they’ve received it. If they appear via video link from prison or police station it is that much more difficult for them to participate.

We only know that children are taking part in court hearings via video link from anecdotal evidence, from newspaper reports and from the research Transform Justice did last summer. This research was about the impact of video links on vulnerable defendants in general. It and other evidence suggest all juvenile YOIs have video facilities, which are used for plea, remand, case management and sentencing hearings ie for every type of hearing apart from trials. Children detained by the police are also being put on video (rarely we think) from the police station for their first appearance.

Its a little scary that no one knows (because there is no data) how many child defendants are being put on video links, what the justification is, whether there has been an increase and whether there is a difference in justice outcomes – the chance of being granted bail or the severity of sentence. The decision seems to be made to put a child defendant on video when they are in custody many miles from the relevant court, and when the hearing is likely to be short. The problem is that the brevity of a hearing does not correlate with its importance.

The evidence in a new report from the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (of which I’m Deputy Chair) suggests overwhelmingly negative experience of video links from judges, lawyers and youth offending team practitioners.

  1. Video can damage the relationship between child defendant and lawyer. A defence advocate said “With the youths you need that personal contact with them because otherwise you’re just some old guy on a screen. Even if you’re only like 25, you’re still old to a youth, like, you’re an adult, why should I trust you?”. Lawyers have too little time (often less than 15 minutes) to discuss cases with their young and vulnerable clients before the hearing and often don’t get a slot after the hearing to explain what happened.
  2. The child defendant has little opportunity to ask what is going on during the hearing since they cannot ask a question without interrupting the case. A YOT officer said “participation in hearings is more than “just” communicating. Being physically present when talked to or about makes it easier for the young person to ask questions if he/she does not understand or to challenge what others are saying about them”.
  3. The child defendant is unlikely to understand the harm they have caused (eg as recently when a child was sentenced on video for multiple acid attacks) if they are sentenced over video. They are disconnected from the gravitas of the court, can easily zone out and don’t properly see the concerned faces and body language of those in court, including the victims.

The use of video links for child defendants goes against all the evidence on the vulnerability of children, on their struggles to participate and on the principles of procedural justice. Yet video links seem to be increasingly used, and the government appears set on including child defendants in their £1 billion digital court reform programme. This means children will be included in wholly virtual hearings (where no one is in the physical courtroom) and in online pleas.

The Standing Committee for Youth Justice calls for a halt on video links for child defendants on the basis that we have no real idea of their effect and strong qualitative evidence that they are harmful.

Instead can’t we address the problem – that children should not spend hours in disgusting transport to far off courts – in a different way? Can we improve the transport, or maybe take the court to the child, as they do in parole hearings, or mental health tribunals? The digital court reform programme is a supertanker. I only hope it can change course.