Emergency plans to conduct more court hearings by video amid the coronavirus epidemic could hinder vulnerable defendants’ access to legal representation, it has been warned.
The government on Saturday revealed plans to introduce additional emergency legislation to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.
Measures proposed are thought to include greater use of video links in “various criminal proceedings” in magistrates’ courts. It may also see “certain civil proceedings” conducted in magistrates’ courts by video or telephone.
The number of people to test positive for coronavirus stands at 319 as of Monday (9 March). Five patients have died – all had underlying health conditions.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Public safety is my top priority. Responding to coronavirus is a massive national effort and I’m working with colleagues across government to ensure we have a proportionate emergency bill, with the right measures to deal with the impacts of a widespread Covid-19 outbreak.”
The use of video links has increased over the years as part of the government’s programme of court modernisation – achieving mixed results.
Penelope Gibbs, director of the charity Transform Justice, told EachOther it is vital the government’s emergency measures are carried out only on “a short-term basis”.
A 2017 report by the charity found that more than 70 percent of 195 lawyers surveyed felt that video-links had a negative impact on defendants’ ability to communicate with their lawyer and the judge.
“My main concern is about effective participation and about outcomes,” she said. “The research I did said it was much more difficult for the defendant to receive advice from their lawyer and take proper instruction from them.”
Gibbs added that the challenges are worse for defendant’s with vulnerabilities, mental health problems, learning difficulties as well as those who have English as a second language.
“It would certainly make trials more difficult,” said barrister Matthew Jackson. “There’s currently no mechanism in place for people in custody to be shown any paperwork via video link and it’s quite common for the CPS to disclose information last minute in Magistrates’ cases.”
He added: “Generally speaking you only get a 15 minute slot for a conference before court at the moment for interim hearings, so I have no idea how they’ll manage it with trials, when most magistrates’ courts doing trials have three or four in a day.”
Magistrates courts have the power to sentence people to prison for up six months for a single offence or one year for multiple offences. A 2010 government evaluation found defendants who appeared in court from police stations by video link were more likely to get prison sentences.
Article 6 of the Human Rights Convention protects our right to a fair trial. In criminal cases, this grants you the rights to attend your trial, access all relevant information and have enough time to prepare your case – among others.
An Equality and Human Rights Commission spokeswoman said: “Coronavirus presents an entirely new challenge and if it continues to spread, we understand why new measures might need to be considered.
“It is vital the justice system works fairly for everyone and there currently isn’t enough evidence to determine how the design and implementation of video-links and digital justice impacts individuals.
“The government should establish a clear evidence base of the equality and human rights issues that need to be addressed before new measures are introduced or existing pilots are extended.”