Virtual justice

Update: Back in 2009 I posted about the introduction of video-feeds between courtrooms and police stations in the UK. A couple of weeks ago the ABC’s Law Report did a follow-up on how that system is working.

As the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria unveils its new virtual tour (following in the footsteps of Tasmania and South Australia), the United Kingdom is experimenting with another kind of virtual court experience.

The UK government is expanding its pilot virtual court to a number of police stations around London. The scheme has attracted lots of criticism. It allows summary matters to be dealt with by a magistrate and Crown prosecutor in a court building while an accused and their counsel are in a linked room at a police station, often miles away. It’s estimated the scheme – if fully implemented – could save the new UK Ministry of Justice around £15 million a year in prisoner transportation costs and early case-resolution.

Edit: According to the Law Report piece it seems more common that a solicitor will be in the courtroom, while their client is in a room at the police station. This makes taking instructions on the fly difficult, if not impossible. There are also question marks over whether the facilities are actually more efficient.

The technology involved is similar to video links already in use in Victoria under Part IIA of the Evidence Act 1958. But under s 42K(2) there’s a presumption against the use of video links here for sentencing hearings. The intent of the UK’s Virtual Court is specifically to encourage an accused to enter a guilty plea and be sentenced soon after their offence – often within hours of arrest.

The traditional common law position in Australia favours the right of an accused to face their accuser, but there are now two distinct lines of authority on the issue. One favours use of remote witness technology unless there are reasons not to; the other has a presumption against it unless there are good reasons why it should be used. The conflict is discussed in R v Goldman [2004] VSC 165.

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