The time has come for Video Enabled Justice
“With the country and the courts in lockdown, a new Video Enabled Justice (VEJ) initiative has arrived just in time to optimise video remand hearings.” This is the message from Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne who, this week, has successfully launched a digital tool across five-force areas. This means that courts hearing remand cases can still function during the COVID-19 national emergency.
Video Remand Hearings, (VRH), enable detainees who are held in police custody and refused bail to undertake their first hearing without physical attendance in the courtroom. It also means that prosecution, defence, probation and interpreters can play their part in court from the safety of their homes or offices.
Government guidance on social-distancing makes it apparent that the courts cannot operate as they have been ahead of the crisis, and as a result police forces are also having to adapt their working practices.
Over the last three years, the VEJ Programme led by Mrs Bourne has been working on ways to digitally transform the criminal justice system.
The ground-breaking VEJ video manager solution that has been designed will now ensure that hearings can be progressed without delays to the courts, mitigating the risk of a ‘backlog’ of cases and the potential for an increase in unnecessary overnight stays in police custody.
HMCTS have commissioned the VEJ programme to roll out the full capability of their solution into the existing designated VRH courts across Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk. Since June 2018 over 8,000 video remand hearings have taken place in these courts.
Scott Neilson a criminal defence lawyer for Tuckers Solicitors in Kent has taken part in over 25 video remand hearings using the VEJ technology. He says: “Kent has operated a "virtual court" at Medway for a number of years which sees defendants charged by the police and refused bail appear by a video screen in court from the police station. Previously, defence lawyers have either had to travel to Medway, attend a local Magistrates Court, or appear with their client at the police station to deal with the case. This has not been without problems as there can be a long queue which means other work cannot be undertaken.
“Whilst nothing can be better than actually seeing a client in person, the new video remand tool does still work, as I can now use my laptop to see my client and not have to travel unnecessarily. Even though there is still a lot of waiting involved at least I can get on with other work.
“The distancing required to combat COVID19 presented a real problem when it came to attending court and dealing with clients. I’m pleased that the VEJ programme has been extended so even more lawyers can deal with hearings remotely which has allowed us to still represent our clients from the safety of our own homes.”
The VEJ team are also, through this technology, implementing new video remand hearings in courts across Sussex and Surrey. This went live on Wednesday 22nd April in Sussex and in just two days 17 court cases have been heard via video, ranging from burglaries, drink/drug driving and assault offences.
Mrs Bourne’s VEJ team have also had to get a significant number of CPS prosecutors, probation staff, defence lawyers and police custody staff ready for this change. They created a registration and training portal and have currently trained more than 180 criminal justice professionals.
Mrs Bourne comments: “We are pleased that we can support police forces, magistrates’ courts and criminal justice partners to work from home where possible, in order to protect the NHS and save lives.
“The VEJ team and our business partners have worked tirelessly with HMCTS to develop a proven technical VEJ video manager. This solution will provide the functionalities needed to coordinate all participants in a video remand hearing and will assist in the smooth and efficient running of the court.
“I’m incredibly proud that this will now be implemented across five counties. It will provide the opportunity for criminal justice partners to work remotely and safely from the court, helping to ease the extra pressures and concerns currently placed on them.
“With this solution, we have proved the Video Enabled Justice concept and successfully scaled it up into a deployable service that will keep the wheels of justice turning during this crisis and beyond.”
In Sussex, the VEJ team have also introduced 14 live link video endpoints into specially adapted rooms across the police estate. The result was 2,000 officer hours saved – the equivalent of 241 shifts, or more than four and half hours per officer.
After three years of development Mrs Bourne signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lord Chancellor in February this year, so that HMCTS would pay to continue to operate the proven technology across the five-force area of Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey and Sussex for a minimum of another year.
As the Senior Responsible Officer for the VEJ Programme, Deputy Chief Constable of Kent Police, Tony Blaker commented: “This collaboration between partners to make this happen, in such testing times, will enable safer working practices within criminal justice and will ensure that remand hearings continue to operate throughout the crisis.”
“Since its commencement three years ago, the VEJ Programme has successfully developed technical and process solutions to exploit the use of video in the Criminal Justice System, whilst understanding how the interests of justice can be served in a more efficient and less disruptive way. The processes, technology and change already implemented, and proven by the VEJ Programme, means that the public can be confident in the continuation of efficient remand hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Mrs Bourne’s VEJ team have also installed new safe consultation video booths, developed in collaboration with the Athelney Group, into police custody centres across all five police forces.
These ligature free holding booths have internal CCTV and video/audio built in. This means that they can be used in a number of ways to speed up criminal justice processes and provide another safe alternative to constant face-to-face contact during the Covid-19 crisis.
Not only do they facilitate the video remand court hearings, they also offer private legal consultation to take place remotely. A detainee’s legal advisor can dial into this meeting using their laptop, stopping them from having to leave their home at this time, keeping them, their families and wider communities safer.
Head of Criminal Justice & Custody for Sussex Police, Superintendent Simon Nelson said: “We are constantly seeking new ways in which we can support our criminal justice partners to deliver fair and effective justice. The new technology provided by the PCC and her team offers us further means to do this whilst supporting us to keep everyone in the criminal justice system as safe as possible at a time when self-distancing is saving lives.”