Defendants’ rights under threat through ‘trial by Skype’

Video-conferencing threatens defendants’ rights and undermines trust in the justice system, according to a report on the government’s drive towards so-called ‘trial by Skype’.

The findings come as the courts pursue a £1 billion modernisation programme extending the use of videolinks and introducing online hearings for a few minor offences in which lawyers remain in their offices while speaking via videolinks to clients and the court.

The study by Transform Justice suggests however, that Defendants in virtual court hearings find it difficult to hold confidential discussions with their lawyers because consultation rooms are often inadequately soundproofed, become disconnected from remote proceedings and may be disadvantaged during sentencing because empathy may be lost.  Misunderstanding of proceedings may also go unnoticed.

A survey of around 300 court users, which included magistrates, lawyers, probation officers and defendants, found that 58% of respondents thought that appearing on video made it more difficult for defendants to understand what was going on, and to participate.  70% of respondents said it was difficult to recognise whether someone who was on video had a disability, while 74% believed that those who had no legal representation were disadvantaged by appearing on video.

Whilst there are no immediate plans for trials via videolink, the report clearly raises issues of concern in terms of ensuring defendants are afforded with the article 6 right to a fair trial, should there be a drive towards ‘trial by Skype’ in the future.