Remote video trials could disadvantage people with learning disabilities, the equalities watchdog has warned, as courts switch to online hearings during the coronavirus crisis.
An interim report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has highlighed concerns about the impact of conducting cases without defendants being present in court.
“Video hearings can significantly impede communication and understanding for disabled people with certain impairments, such as a learning disability, autism spectrum disorders and mental health conditions,” the report says. “People with these conditions are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system.”
The study is published as the Ministry of Justice pledges to switch more magistrates’ hearings to video sessions. This month 85% of cases heard in England and Wales were using audio and video technology.
The EHRC report quotes criminal justice experts warning that the “human element” was missing from such remote interactions. “Trust and rapport are harder to build up … people and behaviours can be easily misunderstood over remote technology.”
Such barriers to communication were “compounded by the short time slots available for video consultations” between lawyers and their clients who might be in a prison, at a police station or elsewhere.
“Slots for meetings are up to 15 minutes and often shorter, even if the quality of the link is poor,” the report warns. “This may be the first opportunity that a defence solicitor or advocate has to meet their client.”
The EHRC, the government’s advisory body on human rights and equality issues, has not called for video and audio hearings to be halted but has expressed concern about the lack of data available on remote hearings and has urged the government to begin collecting information.
One unnamed defendant told the EHRC: “It wasn’t what I would call a real court because I was in a room all on my own with a screen, but I couldn’t hear what was being said … I found it very difficult and I was unable to take part in it.”
David Isaac, the commission’s chair, said: “Coronavirus presents an unprecedented public health emergency and we know that the government is working hard to allow our justice system to continue to function … [But] it is vital that any new approaches should not accentuate the difficulties that already exist for disabled people in accessing justice.
“Equality before the law means that no one defending themselves in court should be disadvantaged because they are disabled – even during a time of national crisis.”