As the government prepares to convince practitioners of the benefits of moving remand hearings for defendants in custody out of court and into a 'video space', research released by HM Courts & Tribunals Service has revealed significant concerns from those on the front line.
A reply to an FoI request by former magistrate Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice, reveals that HMCTS published a 'user research report' last December based on a 'condensed two-week discovery' to understand what defendants, lawyers, police, probation and judges require from virtual remand hearings.
HMCTS says the findings suggest that the 'virtual remand hearings team' should first consider current user needs around information, communication and transparency before designing a solution to administer the hearing itself, due to the 'complex, time-bound and reactive nature' of remand hearings. 'Failure to do this may impact on value, adoption and ability to scale future solutions - as well as exacerbate current challenges and create further strain and pressure on key users'.
HMCTS says it was unable to engage with defendants directly, so their concerns are 'elicited by proxy' through other respondents. Key concerns centre on a lack of information, trust and communication. The report states that 'external research' shows that defendants do not always understand what is happening. Post-hearing, they want more information on what has happened, and to discuss their case with their solicitors in a 'confidential and private' space.
Defence practitioners say it is important to gain new clients' trust during pre-charge and pre-hearing consultations. Informal, off-the-record negotiations about plea and charges with the CPS prior to a hearing are also important. Probation officers say they need to be able to interview defendants face-to-face pre-hearing so that they can make 'more considered' assessments.
The report states that 'quantitative insight' is central to the design of the service, 'however HMCTS lacks the capacity to provide reform projects with the data and analysis they need'. It later says: 'As a result of this initial study, knowledge gaps have been identified - such as the need for primary research with defendants and prison and probation staff to gain a deeper understanding of defendant and key user experiences.'
Gibbs told the Gazette: 'Academics and campaigners such as Transform Justice have been begging HMCTS for months to commission and publish proper research on the digital court reform programme. Releasing this document is a good first step but it still doesn't answer how reforms will impact access to justice.'
Solicitor Rhona Friedman, co-founder of London criminal law firm Commons, says HMCTS's 'belated and limited' research is 'troubling reading'.
HMCTS has organised an online event this month to explain how video remand hearings could work and 'transform' the way proceedings are administered. Friedman says her firm has embraced digital working: 'But that has meant digitising our relationship to documents, not with our clients.'