Virtual hearings negatively affect unrepresented defendants, research suggests - days after the Ministry of Justice refused to guarantee that it will conduct research into the effects of video-link technology as it presses ahead with plans to digitise the courts system.
According to a survey being conducted by former magistrate Penelope Gibbs, director of charity Transform Justice, nearly three-quarters of respondents say video-link hearings have had a negative impact on participation for defendants who do not speak English well or at all, and for unrepresented defendants.
Earlier this year Transform Justice accused the government of failing to justify its claims that new digital processes will improve the justice system, and of ignoring research suggesting the contrary.
On Tuesday, during justice questions, Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, asked the ministry to guarantee that it will research the effects of virtual justice reforms on victims, witnesses and defendants prior to bringing the Courts Bill, which will reform the courts system in England and Wales, to the house. However, Dr Phillip Lee, justice minister, said the ministry 'was consulting a variety of different agencies and the Victims' Commissioner' and is 'in the process of testing pre-recorded cross-examination at a number of centres across the country'.
Few have praised the use of video-link technology. Sir James Munby, president of the family division, berated the state of equipment in family courts, including his own court in London's Royal Courts of Justice. Last year a law firm threatened to boycott a pilot virtual court duty scheme, which it claimed was not fit for purpose.
One court usher responding to the Transform Justice survey said: 'A video-link is at a fixed time and can be outside of our court sitting times if it is the first matter in either a morning or afternoon list. It doesn't take into account any delays or over running of cases in other courts. You often cannot get through to a specific prison, or if you do no one is there as they are dealing with someone else. There is no way to get anyone's attention other than to shout at your end and hope someone hears you.'
The survey is still open. Keen to receive more responses, Gibbs told the Gazette: 'The government and the senior judiciary are set on expanding the use of video hearings for defendants but we have very little information about how vulnerable defendants cope with appearing remotely. Transform Justice wants to ensure that we know as much as possible about the barriers to participation before we make radical changes to the system.'