I have worked in magistrates courts as a legal adviser for over two decades and I worry that the justice system is facing a broken future. Because now, instead of hearings physically taking place in courtrooms, we are moving towards a very detached virtual reality.
Since 2010, over 220 magistrates, county and crown courts have closed across England and Wales, meaning more and more of us live far away from a courthouse and are encouraged to make pleas online or give evidence via a video link.
Those who determine the credibility of an individual’s evidence will tell you how important body language can be when making that decision. Because you can’t always see the gestures someone is using, video links can create a barrier and alter the perception of what’s being said.
There are also genuine concerns about what the impact will be on vulnerable individuals who are disproportionately over-represented in the criminal justice system. I worry that defendants with mental health or learning issues, or those for whom English is not their first language, are at a disadvantage if their liberty is determined via video link. It is harder to assess and support them when they aren’t physically there – and harder for them to be advised and given instructions.
A defendant with severe mental health issues and would not respond to his name came before the court recently. A decision had been made that his hearing should take place by video link after no information had been provided to the court about his circumstances. The defendant became increasingly agitated and the hearing failed.
The digital future of our courts has been envisaged without consulting the staff who work every day in our courtrooms. The reliability of technology just isn’t up to scratch and the constant delays and interruptions become a distraction from the actual court proceedings. In a survey of justice sector staff carried out by the TUC [pdf] in 2016, only 4% of those who responded agreed that IT in courts works effectively.
Links to prisons cut out for no good reason on a regular basis, or an individual can be seen but not heard and vice versa. Last month the sex attacker John Worboys appeared in person in court after the video link to his prison had repeatedly failed. When a video link doesn’t work, court staff have to get creative with workarounds to try and ensure the hearing can go ahead and is not adjourned.
I have convened hearings in video link booths that are designed for lawyers to meet with clients, not for hearings. They’re about the size of a toilet cubicle and are certainly not designed to accommodate magistrates, a legal adviser, a prosecutor, a defence lawyer and a representative of the press. It isn’t dignified, and is far from ideal, but squeezing in there has ensured that a bail application can be heard.
Sometimes when technology fails, a witness can give evidence from behind a screen instead – but that often means the case has to be adjourned for weeks. Witnesses who have prepared themselves mentally to give evidence may not be prepared to come along again, causing the case to collapse. Where’s the justice in cases collapsing because of unreliable technology?
Even the new kit installed as part of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) £1bn justice transformation programme is unreliable. It feels like the changes are being made solely to meet a government digitalisation target. The technology is not fit for purpose and is already having a negative impact on the quality of justice delivered. It’s slow, cumbersome and not user friendly. Using it means I cannot concentrate on what is going on.
The reimagining of our court system comes at a time that we’re facing yet another consultation over the proposals to close another nine courts. The last major round of court and tribunal closures the MoJ consulted on ended with a decision to close 86 – all but four of the 90 at risk. This happened despite overwhelming opposition.
At least there are fewer of us to find this an outrage. More than 5,000 court staff have been cut since 2010 and there has been a tenfold increase in spending on agency and contract staff. The MoJ has also had its budget stripped from £9.3bn in current prices in 2010/11 to £5.6bn by 2019/20.
When money is so tight, instead of hiring ridiculously expensive management consultants to advise on digitalisation, the MoJ would do better by engaging with its own workforce about the improvements our courts really need.
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