The Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) have published a report and ‘open letter’ raising concerns about the increased use of video links for court hearings involving child defendants.
The government and senior judiciary’s plans to modernise the court system include proposals to extend the use of video links in court hearings involving child defendants. This is despite a recognition that there has been little opportunity for evidence gathering or quantitative analysis on the impact of this on child defendants.
The SCYJ’s report shows that children are not only less likely to understand court proceedings, but neither they can properly consult with their lawyer, parent or guardian, nor communicate adequately with the judge in court. The report expresses concern that video link hearings risk making it much harder for children to comprehend the seriousness of their crimes and the harm they have caused.
Video links in court hearings are currently used 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 SCYJ report calls for a halt to government plans for children to be involved in totally virtual hearings (with no one in the court room) and to the use of video links in general (save for the most exceptional circumstances) until their effects are better understood. There is also concern at government proposals to enter pleas via mobile phone.
It is well known that child defendants are inherently vulnerable with high levels of emotional and developmental problems including SEN and mental health issues. They already have difficulties effectively participating in court proceedings. There is a real concern that physically removing them from the courts will create yet another barrier to their participating in and understanding often complicated court proceedings.