Friday, November 3, 2017

Problems and Solutions for Court Videoconferencing

A BuzzFeed News article brought to our attention a report done on the use of videoconferencing in the Courts of the United Kingdom and Wales.  We share some notes from the articles and discuss our potential technology solutions and other resources below.


An article was posted on BuzzFeed News titled “This Man Had To Defend Himself Without A Lawyer Via Videolink With Terrible Audio. He Lost.” It was based on a report from the “charity Transform Justice” that goes into more detail that we will discuss below.

The article describes a UK Court of Appeal hearing in January 2016 presided over by Dame Julia Wendy Macur. The defendant, Folarin Oyebola was “appealing a confiscation order of a property” from prison.  He was quoted as saying:

‘It was horrible,” he recalled. “[The judge] didn’t understand what I was saying at all. It was like speaking into a hollow chamber. I was shouting and it kept echoing back.”

The Report

The article is based upon a report (PDF) titled, “Defendants on video – conveyor belt justice or a revolution in access? by Penelope Gibbs, published in October 2017.  The report goes into much more and better detail and is recommended reading.  I have attempted a summary of the summary section of the report here:

1. The use of video hearings has increased “with little scrutiny or consultation”.  They note that there was “no data on the number of video court hearings held, or for what purpose”.

2. Next, “(t)here is no research on the effect of appearing on video on a defendants’ ability to participate, on their relationship with their lawyer or probation officer, and on perceptions of a jury or judge.”

3. They further allege with little evidence (one study) that “defendants who appeared on video from police stations were more likely to get prison sentences and less likely to get community sentences.”

4. Interviews for the report “suggests that appearing on video can increase defendants’ feelings of isolation and stress. Alarm bells are ringing particularly loud about the use of video for people with mental health problems, learning disabilities, and autism.”

5. And, “(t)his report suggests ways to improve the way video hearings work. But to make the system fit for purpose would cost millions – millions the MoJ does not have. And the outcomes in terms of justice (sentencing and remand decisions) may always be more punitive for those appearing on video. So is it worth it? If cost saving is the over-riding objective of the move to video hearings, the jury is still out on whether they save money now. It may well be more expensive to create a virtual court that works properly than to use existing physical courts.”

The report was based upon an online survey that received responses on each question from at least 180 persons, telephone interviews with eight of the online respondents, and a round table discussion with the courts and other experts that was held on July 5, 2017.

Issues noted in the report included:

1. There is no option for the defendant to decline using videoconferencing

2. There is perceived pressure on judges to use videoconferencing (16% of circuit judges “said that they were concerned by a reduction in face-to-face hearings”.

3. It was reported that “(m)ore than half of respondents to this survey also said “the quality of IT equipment, including live links, was poor.”

4. Audio quality was cited at the most significant problem.  But the defendant sitting too far away from the camera was also cited as a problem.

5. Pre-court conference time between the prisoner and lawyer was noted as an issue because time was limited.

6. Rigid time-slots for video hearings was cited as a problem due to lack of staff in the prisons.

7. Lawyer-client communications are a reported problem

8. There is an inability to share documents

9. And there are issues with confidentiality of communication between persons in prison and attorneys.

Other social/psychological issues identified in the report included:

1. Lack of personal contact between convicted persons and probation officers

2. Impact upon the behavior of the defendant/prisoner

3. Increasing vulnerability and disassociation of the defendant/prisoner with the proceedings

4. But, also possible benefits?

5. The impact upon children

6. Potential issues with family, victims and witnesses

The report also questioned the impact upon outcomes since there has been no recent study of the issue.  And some other items were noted.

Potential Solutions to Consider

Since this is a court technology blog, we will attempt to list some of the potential solutions to the issues raised in the report.

1. Bandwidth and quality of video. – Clearly there needs to be a standard set for testing each of the videoconferencing network connections at both ends.  While the courts could setup a test site to be used to make sure that the systems are working properly, several of the videoconferencing vendors have set up their own test sites.  A list is provided in this blog post from August 3, 2017:

2. My friends in Australia have studied videoconferencing operational, procedural, and physical issues for many years and have addressed this in their excellent 127 page report: Gateways to Justice: Design and Operational Guidelines for Remote Participation in Court Proceedings by Emma Rowden, Anne Wallace, David Tait, Mark Hanson, and Diane Jones.  It is available in PDF here.

This report provides excellent guidance for any court’s videoconferencing program planning and operations.  Highly recommended.

3. High Definition Videoconferencing Screens – It seems from tone of the report that the current videoconferencing equipment used in the UK Courts is from an older generation of technology.  Everyone who has a newer model television knows the difference between standard and high definition.  This should help to address some of the “reality” of video communications that is questioned in the report.  Some vendors currently selling these systems are Polycom, Lifesize, Highfive, Vidyo, Sony, and Zoom.  All of these vendors have excellent audio microphones that work with their systems that if installed properly can alleviate sound issues.

4. Room acoustical engineering.  The Danish company, Odeon (, is one of several that can test and design rooms (meaning courtrooms) that are engineered to support videoconferencing acoustics.   Acoustical recommendations can be made from the architectural drawings.  And there is also test equipment that can be used existing rooms to identify remediation and provide guidance to acoustical engineers. 

5. Video recording storage.  If one of the issues of the report is the inability to store and retrieve the videoconference, our USA based experienced video court reporting vendors can share their solutions.  The AAERT organization can help:

6. Case Management/Calendar linkage.  Since the UK Courts are working on their new case management systems, I assume that this need will be addressed as part of that program.

7. Regarding issues between council and prisoners, everyone with a modern mobile smartphone or tablet can send video and documents.  We use Skype, GoToMeeting, and WebEx here at the NCSC nearly every day to speak by video and share documents.  I assume that this technology can be considered as a solution for this issue.

8. Last, the cost will very likely be argued as a barrier to change.  I would like to suggest that the cost of the newer technology, and because of the amount of competition in these systems, cost of operation and maintenance will very likely be lower.  Further, the new technology is simpler (fewer parts) and more reliable and therefore I would predict that it will work for a longer time period compared to the older systems.

We appreciate the work and thought that went into the report by the Transform Justice Group.  But there are solutions that can be applied.  And while no technology or process is necessarily perfect, we believe that a satisfactory result that combines both technology and procedure can address the issues.

1 comment:

  1. And just after I posted this article I see this announcement from Google about their new videoconferencing system: Always happens. :)