There’s a blind spot in the way the U.S. courts perceive video communication.
While the legal system has generally been quick to adopt new technologies for gathering and presenting information in court, it has yet to fully embrace the use of video conferencing in live settings.
Video calls are often used to stage virtual prison visits, video conferencing has been used in law enforcement by police, and it is now common to conduct pre-trial proceedings and gather witness statements by video conference. However, U.S. courts have been reluctant to perform trials by video conference or otherwise bring video calling into the courtroom. The arguments against video testimony and questioning cover fundamental legal principles around a defendant’s rights to be present during a hearing and to private consultation with their legal representatives.
If you can expand the meaning of the term “present,” however, courtroom video conferencing can be a powerful tool. Using the same commercial-grade technology you and I use to make a Skype call to a friend, video conferencing can produce savings measured in travel, time, and money, and can both increase security and make trials more accessible.
Courtroom Video Conferencing Today
Those video advantages are already being enjoyed outside the conventional trial setting. Several examples from this year alone demonstrate how video can aid the justice system.
The Green County Detention Center and Courthouse was recently awarded a $15,000 Security Grant to establish a video arraignment system. The grant pays for equipment, installation, and training to introduce a direct video link between the courts and the detention center. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, an average of 30 inmates a day are transported between the two facilities in order to move forward with basic legal processes such as pleas and representation.
The video link will speed up the legal process, dramatically increase security, and will reduce related transportation costs by ending the need to move defendants to and from the court.
Speedy Immigration Hearings
Back in March, U.S. immigration courts started hearing cases via video conferencing to deal with a historically high backlog of applications. Moving the cases to remote hearings is expected to cut the case backlog in half by 2020. Under the system, judges in Puerto Rico can hear the testimony of applicants being housed at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey without either party having to travel. Change has been slow in coming, though, with only a third of Elizabeth Detention Center cases being heard by video, while neighboring Newark processes fewer than one in 22 cases online.
Remote Bail Hearings
In September, the courts in Bristol County, Massachusetts, began conducting bail hearings over video connections. A spokesperson for the state Trial Court described the technology as a public safety measure and a “tremendous” method of reducing the costs of security. Under the system, defendants may remotely attend proceedings such as the setting of bail conditions while their lawyers appear in-person. Tellingly, Bristol County will not allow video conferencing to be used in any trial situation where evidence is introduced.
So, it’s another case of two steps forward, one step back for courtroom video conferencing.
The Voice Against Courtroom Video Conferencing
Video conferencing is commonly opposed in courtroom scenarios because it is considered to:
Undermine the dignity of the court: The argument goes that video conferencing isn’t “real,” and it turns proceedings into court TV.
Obscure the judge’s ability to see the defendant: Opponents point out that viewing a defendant on-screen isn’t the same as seeing them in person and that the defendant isn’t always in view of the judge, impairing the judge’s ability to read body language and presentation.
Impair defense counsel communication: Using a public video link can limit a defendant’s opportunity to privately communicate with their legal team.
Infringe on the rights of the defendant: One of the strongest arguments against video calling in court makes the case that defendants have the right to confront their accusers and appear in court in person, a basic tenant of U.S. trial law that isn’t met by video link.
It can be argued, however, that all of these obstacles can be overcome if the proper video setup is employed–and if the meaning of the term “present” can be reinterpreted (a slightly harder feat). But isn’t the law all about interpreting regulation to better suit the contemporary world?
A Better Form of Courtroom Video Conferencing
Video conferencing is regularly used in foreign courts to include remote appearances for reasons of security and resource efficiency. In India, for example, courts regularly invite video testimony, most notably in the trial of the lone surviving suspect in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
That situation called for greater security around a notorious defendant, but it saved the state a significant amount of time and money by making it possible to avoid high-security transportation.
We already have legal video conferencing specialists that will not only provide the equipment and host live video calls but will also set up the necessary connection and devices for free.
The technology to achieve those same benefits within the U.S. justice system is readily available, and relatively cheap. We already have legal video conferencing specialists–CourtCall is one–that will not only provide the equipment and host live video calls but will also set up the necessary connection and devices for free.
And the right setup can make all the difference. If you view the courtroom connection as a group call rather than a static single-screen experience you can solve many of the problems outlined above.
Video Courtrooms the Right Way
Firstly, you need multiple screens. If each member of the proceedings has their own computer, they can make sure they have a visual of the remote witness or defendant. Then the presiding judge, the defense and prosecution, the public gallery, and the witness and the defendant can each be treated like individual callers in a group call. Technology like can automatically switch the dominant view among whoever currently has the floor.
It’s also possible to provide private breakout rooms where any two or more participants can leave the main meeting and talk between themselves. These more personal connections make it possible for the defendant to share his or her private thoughts with lawyers and ensure that not everything happens on-screen in view of the whole courtroom.
Courtrooms are, after all, very regulated places, and there isn’t much that you can achieve with proximity that you lose with remote access.
Of course, the final hurdle to clear is the notion that appearing by video conference isn’t the same as appearing in person. You can argue, though, that if the remote attendee can see and hear every aspect of the proceedings, if they can speak at any time to anyone, and if they can engage in private conversation, then they have access to every advantage an individual physically in the room has. Courtrooms are, after all, very regulated places, and there isn’t much that you can achieve with proximity that you lose with remote access. If you can get past the near-existential debate of when a person is present, video conferencing has a lot to give to the justice system.