Call for urgent review of video links for child defendants

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The increasing use of video links for court cases involving children could be affecting the chances of them getting a fair trial and should be urgently reviewed, children's charities and youth justice campaigners have said.

An open letter signed by 59 individuals representing organisations including Children England, Become, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and the Centre for Mental Health warns that video link appearances can exacerbate communication difficulties experienced by many children, making it hard to consult their lawyer properly or communicate with the judge.

"[Video link] is being deployed for first appearances, remand and sentencing hearings, despite strong indications that it impedes children's participation in the process, prejudices outcomes and undermines the seriousness of proceedings," the letter states.

The letter adds that the government is pressing ahead with proposals to increase the use of video links for child defendants as part of the digital court reform programme and has even suggested that they should have the ability to enter a plea to serious crimes on their mobile phones.

"There is no research on the effect on child defendants of being disconnected from the physical court," the letter states.

"We call on the government to halt the expansion of justice by Skype or mobile for child defendants until we know its effects. Until then, we argue for a firm presumption against the use of video links for child defendants, save for the most exceptional circumstances."

A report on the issue by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) states that over the last decade, defendants of all ages have increasingly been appearing in court on a live video screen rather than attending hearings in person.

However, it adds that the "slow but steady change to the administration of justice" has taken place with little scrutiny or consultation, and there is a dearth of research into the impact appearing on video can have on a defendant's ability to effectively participate in their hearing, and on justice outcomes.

Ali Wigzell, chair of the SCYJ said: "Our report suggests that video link is bad for the child defendants involved, bad for victims and bad for society. What hope is there of getting children to understand what is happening in court or what harm they have done if they are on a video screen hundreds of miles away? The government now has an opportunity to halt these plans. We hope they take heed of these calls before it is too late."

A spokesman for HM Courts and Tribunals Service said: "We are clear that children and young people should attend court in person wherever possible, and they can appear by live-link when the court decides that is in their best interests.

"There are categorically no plans for young people to enter pleas via mobile phone - and no young person under any circumstances would be allowed to make representation to a court without supervision."

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