DMU expert joins Ministry of Justice consultation as courtrooms look to go digital during lockdown

An expert researcher at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) has been called upon by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to join a consultation looking at how more court cases could be moved online during lockdown.

Dr Victoria Knight, senior research fellow for the Community and Criminal Justice Division at DMU, has been asked to contribute to the discussion, as the MoJ looks to implement remote court hearings and  trials during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The global pandemic has caused immense pressure on the UK’s criminal justice system, after jury trials were suspended in March due to social distancing rules, leading to a rise in prisoner numbers.

Dr Knight, whose research looks at the use of digital technologies in prisons, said it was vital that the criminal justice system got back up and running.

“There was a huge backlog of delayed cases in the system even before the coronavirus outbreak,” she explained. “We must get things moving again – not just for the sake of justice, but for public safety too.

“We know that there has been a rise in domestic abuse cases since lockdown and the safety of children in difficult situations is always a concern. We cannot afford for these types of cases to be put on hold.”

The consultation is bringing together academics from across the country, as well as industry experts, to understand how digital technologies could be used for court hearings and what the main challenges could be.

“The only way we can continue jury trials as ‘normal’ right now is to do them virtually,” said Dr Knight. “This is a completely new situation we find ourselves in and while it is radical change for our courts, the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Technology should not be avoided because of people are scared of it.”

Consultees are being asked for their thoughts on everything from how to ensure witness protection and reliably present physical evidence virtually, to addressing connectivity issues and providing technology for those who cannot afford it.

“It is not uncommon for those that are going through the criminal justice system to come from digitally poor families,” explained Dr Knight.

“This pandemic has shed a light on the digital deprivation in the UK, as most of us are relying on technology to undertake routine tasks and connect to our family, friends, work, leisure and education.

“But there are also a lot of people who are not able to participate with the digital world because they simply can’t access smart technology.

“We need to find ways to make devices available for everyone.”

At the end of 2019, the number of outstanding crown court cases in England and Wales had reached 37,434, official figures from the MoJ show – a 13% increase on the previous year.

“This is happening here and now,” added Dr Knight. “I think it is only a matter of weeks before we see jury trials move online.”

In March this year, the UK Government introduced the Coronavirus Act 2020, which outlines how video and audio link could be used in court proceedings, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It includes:

  • Allowing specific civil applications (relating to infectious diseases/coronavirus) in the magistrates’ court to take place by phone or by video, should an individual appeal against restriction of movement due to quarantine measures.
  • Expanding the availability of video and audio link in various criminal proceedings, including fully video and audio hearings in certain circumstances.
  • Allowing the public to participate in court and tribunal proceedings through audio and video.