The field of criminal justice services has witnessed a revolutionary transformation with the widespread adoption of remote video linking to courts. The COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst, propelling the use of virtual platforms to unprecedented levels. The His Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), having utilised video links for years, experienced a significant surge in demand during the pandemic, showcasing the efficiency and effectiveness of remote proceedings.
The Pandemic Effect: A Paradigm Shift in Criminal Justice Services
The pandemic forced the legal system to adapt swiftly, and video technology emerged as a key tool in maintaining essential services. Across various jurisdictions and demographic groups, the shift to remote hearings resulted in public users reporting equal or even better experiences compared to traditional in-person attendance. In December 2021 this shift prompted HMCTS to conduct a comprehensive review, revealing key insights that have since shaped the ongoing evolution of criminal justice services.
1. Increasing Awareness for Vulnerable Users
One crucial aspect highlighted in the review was the need to increase awareness among vulnerable users. HMCTS emphasised that public users, particularly those with unique needs, can request the presence of a carer, support worker, or interpreter during remote hearings. This ensures that individuals requiring additional assistance have the support they need to participate fully in the legal proceedings.
2. Promoting Requests for Support and Adjustments
HMCTS recognised the importance of promoting and streamlining the process for users to request necessary support and adjustments for remote hearings. The review emphasised the significance of responding to such requests in a reasonable timeframe ahead of the scheduled hearing, ensuring that accommodations are in place to guarantee equal access to justice for all.
3. Enhancing Guidance and Education
To make the transition to remote proceedings smoother for all users, HMCTS identified the necessity of comprehensive guidance. Step-by-step instructions, accompanied by screenshots and how-to guides, including short instructional videos, have been implemented to assist users in joining and participating in virtual court hearings.
4. Facilitating Interaction during Video Hearings
The review highlighted the potential for further enhancing user interaction during video hearings. Recommendations were made to explore additional mechanisms for court users to engage with legal representatives, intermediaries, interpreters, and other support personnel. Suggestions included incorporating private chat functions or break-out rooms on the Common Video Platform (CVP), providing a more dynamic and interactive virtual courtroom experience.
5. Timely Distribution of Joining Instructions
Ensuring the smooth operation of remote hearings relies on timely communication. HMCTS stressed the importance of sending out remote hearing joining instructions and links well in advance, particularly when parties require additional support. This proactive approach ensures that users have ample time to familiarise themselves with the virtual platform and address any technical or accessibility issues.
6. Improving Communication with Interpreters
Recognising the vital role of interpreters, HMCTS recommended improvements in communication and preparation. Basic information about the hearing, such as jurisdiction and type, should be provided to interpreters ahead of time. Moreover, allowing British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters to have pre-hearing contact with the individuals they will interpret for fosters better understanding and coordination, contributing to a more seamless virtual courtroom experience.
7. Legal Profession's Role in Remote Proceedings
HMCTS extended recommendations to the legal profession, urging a consideration of their role in adapting to remote proceedings. Specifically, the review suggested that legal professionals should collaborate to define processes for receiving instructions from their clients in the virtual setting.
As we delve deeper into the era of remote video linking in criminal justice services, it's evident that the lessons learned during the pandemic have reshaped the landscape. HMCTS's commitment to addressing challenges and enhancing the user experience underscores the ongoing commitment to innovation in the legal sector. The transformation brought about by remote video linking not only unlocks efficiency but also paves the way for a more accessible, inclusive, and streamlined future for criminal justice services.
This blog is based on the HMTCS 'Evaluation of remote hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic' Research report, published in December 2021.
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Experienced Senior Marketing Executive with a history of working in the events industry. Marketing lead for Govnet Justice portfolio, Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Communication from Simon Fraser University.