The use of video hearings for defendants and prisoners has increased gradually but steadily over the last ten years with little scrutiny or consultation. The development of video hearings has profound implications for the way the court, and justice itself, is perceived, and for the relationship between a lawyer and their client.
Video hearings from prison and police station to court, and from prison to parole board are seen as quicker, cheaper and more convenient – by the senior judiciary, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), but many practitioners and magistrates feel that the disadvantages of virtual justice outweigh the advantages. And it is not at all clear what are the outcomes in terms of justice, for witnesses or defendants. There is no data on the number of video court hearings held, or for what purpose. There is no research on the effect of appearing on video on a defendants’ ability to participate, on their relationship with their lawyer or probation officer, and on perceptions of a jury or judge. The only research from the last ten years on the outcomes of defendants appearing on video in England and Wales found that defendants who appeared on video from police stations were more likely to get prison sentences and less likely to get community sentences.
This report suggests ways to improve the way video hearings work. But to make the system fit for purpose would cost millions – millions the MoJ does not have. And the outcomes in terms of justice (sentencing and remand decisions) may always be more punitive for those appearing on video. So is it worth it? If cost saving is the over-riding objective of the move to video hearings, the jury is still out on whether they save money now. It may well be more expensive to create a virtual court that works properly, than to use existing physical courts.