Our Criminal Courts are experiencing a sea change at the moment. The government has decided that making use of technology is a good thing and that Criminal Courts should be part of the digital revolution. This revolution now enables cases to be dealt with by way of video/live links. A Defendant can be in Court over a live link from a Police Station as soon as they are charged (Virtual Court). Most sentencing hearings, for those Defendants in custody, are heard over a live link. The pre-recording of testimony including examination in chief and cross examination is being looked at. But what about the Defence Advocate in a Criminal Court? How is this digital revolution impacting on their work? When I first started defending Clients’ it was the layout of the Court room and court etiquette that was perplexing. For example in Court 4 at Milton Keynes Magistrates’ Court you sit to the left of the Prosecutor but, in Court 3 you sit to the right of the Prosecutor! In a Youth Court you sit down to address the Magistrates. In the Crown Court you do not leave the court room until the Judge formally releases you, it is bad etiquette to just get up and leave once the case is over. Now the digital revolution has meant that a whole new set of procedures have to be learnt and technology mastered. Video/live link hearings are timed and require us to have a pre-conference with the Client for 15 minutes followed by the hearing and a 15 minute post-conference. Gone are the days when you saw your Client in the Court cells and you discussed their case face to face. Time is of the essence because if you miss your slot the Court list is delayed and the Court is not amused. The cross-examination of a witness over a live link requires the witness to be able to hear you and you hear them. Getting used to speaking into a microphone and listening to a reply with or without static is a new experience. The service of prosecution papers is now digital and gone are the days of going to Court with a highlighter pen and counsels note pad so that you could annotate the papers. The presentation of cases has changed so that evidence can be seen on a TV screen (known as Click Share). Making sure what is displayed and what is not displayed requires particular editorial skill. All of the technological advances have gone a long way from the traditional court room that I first saw in 1998. Then court rooms where quite plain – they had a dock, a bench and a witness box. Now the court room looks like a command and control centre with TVs, microphones and swivel arms for you to put laptops/ipads on. The humble lectern still exists and I am glad of that as you always need something to hold onto when you are speaking. In fact, the lectern is unlikely to disappear as its shape means that you can easily put your lap top or ipad on it. As a Defence Advocate I welcome the use of technology in a court room. Our Criminal Justice system needs to move with the times. Cases that can be dealt with over a video/live link should be. Virtual Court cases will mean less of a backlog of cases, enabling Court rooms to be used more effectively for those cases that are disputed. My only concern is that efficiency should not get in the way of justice. A person charged with a criminal offence has a lot to lose. Any decision they make about their case should be made without pressure put on them to hurry up as the link is about to close. If you want to discuss the contents of this article, contact David Backhouse on 01525 372 140 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.
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