Defendants should sit with their legal team in criminal courts unless it has been proven that extra security is required, an influential human rights group says today. 

JUSTICE is calling for open docks to be scrapped and the presumption that all defendants sit in the well of the court.

If there are security concerns, the report says, a procedural hearing should be held to satisfy the court there is good reason to put the defendant in a dock.

The established use of docks was not 'cemented' until the 1970s, the report says, noting that secure glass-screened docks not arriving until 2000.

JUSTICE pointed out there is no statutory requirement for their use. A study in Australia has found the dock can have a prejudicial impact on juries. This finding has been backed up by appeal courts in both Australia and the USA.

The report says: 'On entering court it is hard to avoid the presence of the dock as it dominates the room. A brief trial visit can demonstrate that a person encased in the dock is isolated from the proceedings. As a consequence, an independent observer would struggle to avoid the impression that the enclosed defendant appears guilty.’

Justice secretary Michael Gove last week confirmed that the department plans to review its court estate, and JUSTICE said this offers a chance to change the long-standing policy.

The report said removing the dock from criminal courts would allow for more flexible use of the court estate, saving the government money. 

Each secure dock costs around £30,000 to build and requires security guards to supervise.

The best position for defendants, the report argues, is on the second row of advocates’ benches, among the lawyers in the well of the court. This location would reduce the likelihood of witnesses being intimidated – answering one of the concerns of critics of the idea.

The report concluded: ‘Rather than being a generic part of courtroom furniture, the dock in fact forms an extension of the prison cell into the courtroom.

‘When considered against the longstanding fair trial rights of the effective participation in one’s trial, presumption of innocence, and dignity in the administration of justice, it is difficult to see how the dock can be justified.’

It is understood from the Judicial Office that the lord chief justice has welcomed the report, but has yet to support the abolition of the dock, as one national newspaper reported today.

In January, Lord Thomas of Cymgiedd questioned whether the dock was ‘really necessary’ and said radical ideas needed consideration.