Cost-cutting plans to increase the use video links in criminal proceedings will discriminate against disabled defendants and risk serious miscarriages of justice, according to disability and criminal justice charities. Video and audio link hearings were widely used during the Covid-19 pandemic leaving vulnerable suspects accused of the most serious crimes including murder and rape without face-to-face legal advice when interviewed in the police station, as reported here.
Despite such concerns, proposals to expand the use of video and audio links are now contained in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill which is due to be debated in the House of Lords today. A coalition of eleven groups including Fair Trials, Transform Justice, Just for Kids Law, Disability Rights UK and Mencap argue that the proposals would significantly impact fundamental rights and equality in the criminal justice system for defendants, particularly those with learning difficulties, neurodiversity or mental distress.
The charities are calling for peers to support an amendment by Lord Ponsonby that would require that all defendants who might appear on a video or audio link from a location outside court should be subject to a health needs screening, and that screening information be made available to the judge responsible for listing.
‘Remote hearings can have an adverse effect on defendants’ right to access effective legal advice and assistance, their ability to take part effectively in hearings and their capacity to understand and challenge information and evidence being presented,’ commented Fair Trials’ legal and policy officer, Griff Ferris. ‘During the pandemic we’ve all been forced to communicate much more via video and audio links. But it’s one thing using it for speaking to friends, family or colleagues, and another to expand its use widely for criminal hearings.’ He called for defendants to have a full health screening before taking part in video and audio link hearings in order to protect their right to a fair trial. Cutting costs should not be more important than protecting our fundamental rights.’
‘This provision discriminates against disabled defendants and could lead to serious miscarriages of justice,’ said Kamran Mallick, chief exec of Disability Rights UK said. ‘Trials should be shaped around the needs of defendants, to ensure that processes are fair and barriers are removed. Expert screening of the needs of defendants is absolutely vital.’
The Bill provides ‘broad but unspecific’ discretion to judges to decide whether a video or audio link hearing would be appropriate. ‘However, judges are not medical professionals and may not know whether an individual has a disability or learning difficulty that makes it extremely difficult for them to engage effectively with remote proceedings,’ says Fair Trials. The legislation would enable the use of video and audio links for a range of proceedings including preliminary hearings, trials, appeals to the Crown Court, sentencing hearings, bail hearings.
Fair Trials point to research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission demonstrating that defendants with learning difficulties, neurodiversity or mental health issues were at risk of unfair trials where trial proceedings are conducted remotely.
Read Fair Trials’ briefing here.