Using video links for court cases involving children “impedes children’s participation in the process, prejudices outcomes and undermines the seriousness of proceedings,” campaigners have warned.
An open letter from more than 50 experts and organisations including representatives from the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, Nacro, Children England and The Prison Reform Trust, urges the government to halt the expansion of justice by Skype or mobile for child defendants until its effects are better known.
“The evidence shows that children (under 18-year-olds) in court, many of whom have communication problems, struggle to understand what is going on and to participate effectively in proceedings. How much more difficult to do so if you are sat hundreds of miles from the court and separated from everybody there by a video screen?” says the letter.
The letter highlights a recent case whereby a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to prison for ten years. He pleaded guilty but his case overran. The judge decided to sentence the boy by video link early on a Monday morning, despite his Youth Offending Team officer not being consulted about the use of the video link.
“The boy will have been alone (save for a prison officer) in a small room at the prison when he heard his sentence, isolated from his lawyer and his family,” the letter states.
The letter refers to a report by The Standing Committee for Youth Justice which shows that when a video link is used:
- Children are less likely to understand.
- They can neither properly consult with their lawyer, parent or guardian.
- They cannot communicate adequately with the judge in court.
“We are concerned that video link risks making it much harder for children to comprehend the seriousness of their crimes and the harm they have caused,” the letter adds.
While Skype has been used for adult defendants since 2000, it has only recently been used with children. The government are pressing ahead with proposals to increase the use of video links for child defendants as part of the digital court reform programme and have even suggested that they should plead guilty to serious crimes on their mobile phones, the coalition of organisations warns.
“There is no research on the effect on child defendants of being disconnected from the physical court. We call on the government to halt the expansion of justice by Skype or mobile for child defendants until we know its effects,” said the letter.
“Until then, we argue for a firm presumption against the use of video links for child defendants, save for the most exceptional circumstances,” it concludes.