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Judges Criticise Plans For Remote Video Trials

Judges Criticise Plans For Remote Video Trials

video trials

Judges have criticised proposals from the Ministry of Justice to hold full trials via remote video hearings, stating that the plan errs “in the name of cost reduction but at the cost of justice.”

The objections were published in December following a trial run of video technology in Bristol run by HM Courts and Tribunal Services, which saw three trials out of eight halted due to computer failures.

The reforms proposed by the Ministry of Justice have been scaled down from the original plans, with policymakers promising that use of video technology will be severely limited and used only in cases involving minor charges. Trials for serious crime charges held in the Crown Court would therefore not be conducted remotely.

Ministry of Justice officials hope that the use of video links and online justice will boost efficiency in the court system, by cutting down on the need for physical court buildings.

But Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the High Court’s Family Division, says that senior judges are:

“understandably apprehensive of the potential for parties and their lawyers to be denied the valuable opportunity for pre-hearing, face-to-face meetings at court.”

These face-to-face meetings are “when crucial and time-saving negotiations and discussions take place and agreements are often reached,” Sir Andrew added.

Judiciary fears video technology will affect ‘gravitas’ of proceedings

The criticism of the move to incorporate video technology into more court proceedings comes in a report on a consultation of judges published by the senior judiciary in England and Wales.

The report summarises the views of the heads of each judicial division on the planned changes and provides insight into concerns amongst their group.

Family judges consulted expressed concern that video technology would compromise the security, confidentiality and “gravitas of the proceedings.” Across the civil courts, the majority of civil judges “expressed the firm view that … trials involving oral evidence are not suitable for video hearings.”

The report also highlights judges’ concerns regarding the government’s broader plans to modernise the court system. Under the £1.2bn court modernisation programme, the Ministry of Justice is working with HM Courts Tribunal Services and the judiciary to render the court system more efficient and cost-effective.

Senior judicial heads have criticised initial proposals from the Ministry of Justice to cut more than 6,500 jobs from courthouse and administrative roles by 2022, stating that the plans for significant staff cuts will create an “unworkable” court system.

Over 250 courts across England and Wales have already been closed in the last eight years.

Criminal judiciary warns that legal aid access must be protected

In the criminal judiciary, concerns particularly focused around whether an increase in video trials would affect parties’ access to legal support.

Head of criminal justice Sir Brian Leveson noted that he and other judges within his division felt that the move to allow guilty or not guilty pleas to be taken online should not be pursued without changes “to the way that legal aid is provided”.

Sir Brian emphasised that: “Early good quality legal advice is essential and safeguards are imperative,” adding “Many [judges] are concerned that a move to online directions could lead to less engagement.”

Criminal judges also warn that the lack of physical proceedings could be taken to diminish the significance of criminal charges and undermine “respect for the rule of law.”

Remand hearings would largely continue to be conducted in court under the modernisation proposals. In addition, judges will have the ultimate choice over whether a case is heard fully by video or not, with courts to remain staffed to an agreed, minimum levels.

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