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Remand by skype – the dystopian future for an already broken system

Penelope Gibbs
19 Mar 2018

Imagine being imprisoned on remand in relation to a crime you did not commit on the basis of a 3 ½ minute “pitch” by a prosecutor whose only knowledge of your case is what they have read that morning. The information used to justify remand is often later found to be wrong, as our new report illustrates.

I have written about conveyor best justice previously, in relation to video hearings. Unfortunately bail/remand hearings seem to be run like express trains whether or not they are on video. Defendants who are detained by the police are catapulted into court. In the cells you will have a short consultation with a lawyer, who you may never have met before, who may have no papers about their case. If your lawyer doesn’t have enough information at this first appearance, they may decide not to oppose a prosecution application for you to be remanded in prison. If they decide to oppose the prosecution case, they have minimal information with which to do so – usually just a brief policy summary. And the bench is trained to accept the prosecution case anyway.

Once remanded, the odds are stacked against getting out. Despite having a prima facie right to bail, you will have to prove your circumstances have changed in order to get bail. This is challenging, given that it is difficult to contact your lawyer from inside the prison, and bail information services (which used to help prisoners on remand get out) have more-or-less disappeared.

Remand should never to be used as a punishment, but that’s how it must feel. Particularly given that most of those who are both remanded and tried in magistrates’ courts are released by the court – either acquitted (25%) or getting a non-custodial sentence (33%).

How could we make this already broken system worse? Those in prison on remand are already often forced to appear on video to plead for their liberty. If they are given a choice. it is Hobson’s choice – spend 14 hours, much of it in an uncomfortable van, or bleak court cell, for a short hearing – or go on video. There is good evidence that appearing on video prejudices the outcomes of defendants so the latest wheeze of the government to put everyone on video is concerning. As part of the government’s drive to save money they have lighted on remand hearings as the perfect guinea pig for totally virtual hearings, where no-one will be in the actual court, everyone will be taking part from their own homes/offices on ipads or laptops.

The problem with totally virtual remand hearings, is that they are likely to embed and exacerbate the problems in the current system – that the remand prisoner cannot easily consult with their lawyer, and that in court there is insufficient challenge to the prosecution case for remand. Remand hearings seem to have been chosen to go virtual because they are currently almost a tick box exercise and are over in minutes. But that is exactly why so many remand hearings are a travesty of justice.