Criminal justice and disability organisations are urging peers to vote for a legislative amendment that would require a health needs screening for all defendants who might appear in criminal proceedings remotely.
Clause 170 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which deals with video and audio links in criminal proceedings, will be debated in the House of Lords today.
Ahead of the debate, a dozen criminal justice and disability organisations issued a statement outlining their concerns on expanding the use of video and audio links. The statement is signed by Fair Trials, Crime in Mind, Disability Rights UK, Down’s Syndrome Association, Disabled People Against Cuts, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, Inclusion London, Just for Kids Law, Mencap, National Survivor User Network, Neurodivergence in Criminal Justice Network and Transform Justice.
They said there is currently no reliable system in current remote proceedings to identify people with learning difficulties, neurodiversity or mental distress ‘particularly considering that these are often not always immediately apparent, and a defendant may be reluctant to share these personal details.
‘Currently, defendants are expected to rely on judicial “discretion” - the judge’s own assessment of them - which is a completely insufficient protection. Judicial discretion cannot be exercised properly if the judge is not able to properly assess an individual – an ability which is significantly restricted during video and audio link proceedings.’
The organisations support an amendment to the bill, tabled by Lord Ponsonby, that would require a health needs screening for all defendants who might appear on a video or audio link from a location outside court. The screening information would be made available to the judge before listing is finalised.
In a parliamentary debate last November, justice minister Lord Wolfson said the government had built safeguards into clause 169 of the bill. Courts must decide whether it is in the interests of justice, including taking the views of the person who would attend by live link, on whether they can participate effectively in the proceedings. The clause also requires that the parties have an opportunity to make representations to the judge.