Video conferencing in the justice system
As the Supreme Court closed its doors in March 2020, justice was seemingly on standby as courts had to find a new, more efficient way to proceed during the global pandemic.
During the initial weeks of the lockdown, many trials and court meetings had to be postponed. Risks to public health and the well-being of court users were high, meaning that courtrooms across the UK had to suspend operations.
Even before the virus hit, the delaying of court cases was already par for the course when it comes to the state of the justice system, with court cases often taking an average of 511 days to complete. With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting traditional justice systems hard, and social distancing measures making customary proceedings impossible, many court cases such as the high profile trial over the death of Police Officer PC Harper along with thousands of others had to be delayed to protect the health and well-being of court users.
Already plagued with a huge backlog of cases—37,000 cases waiting to be heard in crown courts and 400,000 in magistrates courts—the postponement simply added to the pile-up, leaving even more claimants, victims, and their families distraught, highly stressed, and completely in limbo.
With a number of highly sensitive and urgent cases waiting in the wings, courts had to find a way to pivot the traditional systems amid fears that vigilantism and mob justice may rise if proceedings continue to be adjourned.
The case for a new approach
Video conferencing technology has historically been used in some capacity during court proceedings. Enabling witnesses to give evidence from remote locations, allowing children or vulnerable parties to avoid the distressing environment of the courtroom, or easing the pressure on expert witnesses (particularly medical professionals) are some of the benefits video conferencing has brought into courtrooms.
Video technology has come a long way since the first virtual court case took place in 2018. When courts closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, video technology was ready to play a pivotal role in the continuity of the justice system. Virtual hearings became the solution not just for the UK, but across France, Germany, the USA, and the UAE among others, and a new protocol was issued in the UK with regards to mass uptake in virtual hearings.
Virtual hearings began in earnest, supporting the justice system in working through the backlog of urgent cases. Video communications proved particularly helpful in bringing forward conclusions in the case of child protection and custody cases that required critical resolution.
Most recently, the criminal prosecution of Donald Trump illustrated the importance of education and standards being applied to the use of video conferencing as part of the legal process. As we’ve mentioned in previous chapters, adoption of new technology is seldom uniform across the population. Unfortunately, digital teething problems are now an element of public spectacle, but the benefits of forging ahead with enablement are clear.
The advantages of video conferencing in the justice system
Aside from improved efficiency, and helping some tribunals to get through the backlog of cases, it looks as though virtual hearings might not just be a temporary fix for the courts. With many recognising the benefits of increasing accessibility and transforming a system steeped in tradition, there is hope the antiquated customs of the justice system might be moved into the 21st century.
For the most part, with processes in place to ensure sufficient connectivity and resilience, virtual courtrooms seem to have run smoothly.
A recent appeal case over the alleged defamation of independence blogger Stuart Campbell took place in Scotland as a virtual hearing. Commenting on the online appeal case, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service Chief Executive Eric McQueen said:
“While this is an immediate response to coronavirus, there is no doubt that the learning will inform our thinking to make virtual courts a permanent addition to our Scottish courts.”
Converts to video include barrister Oliver Kirk, who discovered that the increasing use of video technology meant he could cut down his travel time considerably. Providing comment for the Financial Times, Kirk said:
“I realised it saved me around two and a half to three hours of travelling, getting to court and waiting around,” he says. “I think we have all realised the vast amount of time we spend schlepping around the country for a five-minute hearing.”
Online Courts and the Future of Justice writer Richard Susskind also argues the case that online and hybrid hearings may help to shape the future of the justice system and even revolutionise the ways in which we resolve disputes, claiming that “cultural obstacles disappear and we innovate.”
Security on trial
One key roadblock for video conferencing in the justice system has been the challenge of security. The Zoom bombing of a high-profile online court hearing in Florida brought security concerns to light. However, the human element plays as big a role as any in such circumstances. Simple measures such as requiring a password to join a hearing and using a virtual waiting room to vet participants before allowing them to join are essential elements users can control in keeping their meetings secure.
The Twitter hacking hearing shows us the education and awareness gap regarding effective video conferencing. As security reporter Brian Krebs puts it: “How the judge in charge of the proceeding didn’t think to enable settings that would prevent people from taking over the screen is beyond me.”
Providers, of course, go much deeper in terms of security measures. Multiple layers, extensive redundancy, advanced encryption, and rigorous third-party auditing all contribute to critical security and reliability of video conferencing platforms.
While video conferencing provides huge benefits to the legal system in terms of time and cost savings, it’s critical that those in the driving seat invest in video technology with extensive in-built security measures to mitigate cyber attacks. Security and reliability are paramount in implementing a viable platform over which to conduct legal proceedings. That technology is certainly available and can be accessed by service users proceeding cautiously through the vendor selection process.
In short, the technology is tried and tested and is up to the task. It’s up to users to take the necessary precautions to safeguard their own video interactions.