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On screen but disconnected? The reality of virtual justice

Penelope Gibbs
16 Jun 2017

I visited Chatham magistrates’ court this week. It’s opposite a busy shopping centre but I was the only member of the public observing. I’m always interested by the notices posted up in the court. One said

“If you are released on unconditional bail you will not receive a written notice of the next hearing date – you will be expected to remember the next hearing date….if you do not, you may be fined up to £2000 or imprisoned for up to 3 months.  You may also be arrested and kept in custody until the court can deal with your case”.

People missing their appointments in court is a huge problem. Those in trouble with the law often lead chaotic lives, and have trouble remembering what they are supposed to do later the same day, let alone in a few weeks. They don’t have pens to write things down in court and lose letters. We need to find a better way of getting those on bail to return to court on the right day, than to rely on threatening posters.

Another notice was about legal advice. It said that HMCTS could not give legal advice or support and that those who needed it should contact a solicitor, or contact a Citizens Advice Bureau, a consumer advice centre or civil legal advice.  This notice is of scant use to the third of defendants who turn up at court unrepresented, particularly if they are not eligible for legal aid. Neither the Citizens Advice Bureau nor any law centre deals with unrepresented defendants, so people who follow the advice on the poster may queue for hours for an appointment, only to learn their wait has been in vain. Unrepresented defendants need information to help them find a lawyer or to help them through the process. Not this.

The particular court I observed was a virtual court. This meant that every defendant is dealt with remotely – they are on video and everyone else is in the court-room. The defendants are in police stations across Kent equipped with video custody suites. People whom the police have detained overnight go into the custody suite for their hearing, while their lawyer is in court in Chatham.

Lawyers and others complain that video link technology often doesn’t work very well technically.  This didn’t seem to be a problem in Chatham, but other aspects of the system were:

  1. All the defendants seemed vulnerable by their isolation. No-one had family or supporters with them either in the custody suite or in the court. Why should a family member turn up to see their nearest and dearest on video? The defendant sat often seemingly alone in the custody suite, with no-one with whom to discuss their case, apart from the police person on duty.
  2. The isolation of the defendant was accentuated by their separation from their lawyer, and anyone else who needed to help them. A probation officer was in court, but her services seemed to be ignored since the video link time was limited, and this left no time for “on the day” reports.
  3. A child aged sixteen was beamed in, from a police station yards from the actual court. Despite the fact that the youth court was running that day, his hearing was in a court with an adult bench. He was looked after and had severe ADHD. His lawyer in court said it had been impossible to get proper instructions on his plea over the video (lawyers are supposed to consult their clients in video booths). He asked for an adjournment and the boy was released. This court hearing was a waste of time, as well as a travesty of the rights of a child defendant.
  4. The first and last defendants to appear were unrepresented, but no-one asked why, or suggested they sought legal advice, even though they were facing prison sentences.
  5. Practically every defendant who appeared on video-link had medium/severe mental health problems but there was no liaison and diversion service at the police station, so there was no proper assessments of their needs, and absolutely no adjustments made. A man whose lawyer said he had borderline personality disorder was sentenced to custody for breach of a non molestation order (he had made non violent calls to his ex girlfriend), with no mental health assessment and no pre-sentence report. Another defendant begged to be sectioned and started howling “I think I’ll be dead, I want to kill myself”.
  6. The CPS recommended that a woman who was suicidal should be remanded for her own protection (despite latest evidence that those with mental health problems are usually safer in the community). She had been accused of racial harassment. There was no mental health assessment, but the bench agreed she should be released on bail. The woman looked as vulnerable in her bare police station room as I have ever seen a defendant – a tiny, diminished figure, clearly ill, with no supporter nearby. I suspected she was going to leave the police station alone.
  7. Two of the defendants started howling/swearing in their police suite after the bench had decided their fate. I have seen defendants “let rip” before, but it is rare. I think their isolation from the court-room, and from their lawyer and the bench, meant that they lost the inhibitions they may have felt had they been present in person. Also. it is much more difficult to express body language on video, so this may have prompted them to emote through words.
  8. As ever in magistrates’ courts, I wondered why so many people are detained by the police only to be released by the court. They are either dangerous enough to be in custody, or not. The last detainee on video was a man who was accused of not paying court fines. He had been in police custody for at least 24 hours and was unrepresented.  He last made a payment in 2015 towards c £1000 in outstanding fines. Out of the blue, the authorities shuddered to action and arrested him this week. The bench proceeded to impose an agreement to pay off his fines and a suspended prison sentence on him. He was a compliant, now law abiding, man.  Why go to the expense of arresting and detaining him?  Why give him a suspended prison sentence?

I know many in the Ministry of Justice think me a Luddite. I’m definitely concerned about the risks to defendants of new technology. And I would plead for everyone involved in court reform to spend a whole day observing a virtual court incognito, and form their own conclusions as to the effect of video on vulnerable defendants.

Meanwhile anyone with experience of virtual courts please fill in this short anonymous survey