Comment Blog 28 June, 2019

Putting Users at the Heart of Change

Criminal lawyers are wary of the Government’s digital court reform programme. They and every other court user welcome digitisation of case files and better booking systems. But the programme also involves an expansion in the use of video hearings and of online court processes.

Video links from prisons to courts have been running for nearly 20 years but they have been expanded without any good research into their impact on users and on court outcomes. They are justified as saving money on prison transport and making court hearings more convenient for those in prison. They certainly do both, but do they really serve justice or the needs of the user – the defendant? Transform Justice surveyed magistrates, lawyers and court staff about video links. Most had grave concerns.

Lawyers complained that video links damaged the relationship between lawyer and client and sometimes destroyed trust - lawyers are forced to have private consultations with their clients on video. Sometimes, lawyers on video have less than 15 minutes to introduce themselves to a new client, to get the stressed client to reveal their background and any disabilities they might have, to discover as much as possible about the alleged offence, to advise the client whether to plead guilty or not guilty and to prepare them for the court hearing.

Not surprisingly, lawyers say defendants are short changed. Our interviewees also suggested that forcing defendants to go on video influences their behaviour for the worse - “many, or even most, defendants seem to feel disconnected from the court process when appearing via video-link. It’s almost as if they are being processed by a machine as opposed to humans.” Being on video, isolated from the court, defendants either disengage from the court process or become frustrated and end up being rude. Clearly angry, rude defendants may get worse outcomes.

The only UK study which monitored the outcomes of video hearings should have rung alarm bells. In 2010 the Government evaluated a pilot of magistrates’ court hearings where the defendant appeared from a room in a police station. Their lawyer, the judges and all others involved saw the defendant on video from the courtroom. In the pilot, the defendants who appeared on video were less likely to be represented by a lawyer, more likely to plead guilty and likely, if convicted, to get a higher prison sentence. It’s not clear whether this is correlation or causation, but if being on video does significantly change the court outcome for a defendant, we all need to know why.

Since 2014, HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has secured over a billion for their digital court reform programme, and in return the Treasury has committed them to a very tight timetable. This has prompted a leap to digital solutions – more video links, wholly virtual courts, online processes – without first having the information to properly analyse the problem. Last year HMCTS published a study on court users which showed that the most important driver of satisfaction was being “listened to” and that those who had gone in person to court were far more likely to feel “listened to” than those who had communicated with the court online or on the telephone. The digital court reform programme cannot and will not be reversed. But let’s slow it down a bit so we can assess how it impacts on access to justice, and ensure that it helps vulnerable people to get redress.