Video Enabled Justice Programme: University of Surrey Independent Evaluation

The Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, Katy Bourne, asked the University of Surrey to conduct an extensive independent evaluation of a new booking tool for use in organising first appearance remand hearings held by video. The evaluation is now available at the link below and is accompanied with some FAQs.

Over the last three years, the Video Enabled Justice programme funded by the Home Office has developed a scheduling tool and virtual lobby to help manage appearances by detainees, defence, prosecution, probation and interpreters.

This facility and the training provided for video court administrators will help to keep remand hearings running during the Covid emergency by minimising the need for participants to gather in person.

Five police force areas have been successfully using the technology with over 8000 video remand hearings taking place in Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk since June 2018, with Sussex and Surrey coming on stream in April this year

We welcome the evaluation by the University of Surrey into the use of the booking tool developed by the Video Enabled Justice programme and hope the observations provide some useful insights to inform the digital justice transformation agenda.

Views and endorsements

Simon Nicholls DirectorBelmores Solicitors, Norwich said: ‘One of our mission statements at Belmores is to believe that we zig when others zag. Directors Simon Nicholls and Dave Foulkes are always looking ahead of the curve to find ways to enhance the way we deliver a quality service to our clients parallel to fellow service providers in the Justice System including the Court, the Police and the CPS.

Our experience of the VEJ tool over the last two weeks, if measured on a sliding scale of 1-10, would be 11. It has enabled us to continue to provide high levels of service in these difficult Covid-19 times whilst providing a major spotlight on the way ahead when the Courts return to some semblance of normality and well beyond. The VEJ tool gets a substantial thumbs up from Belmores and our clients too’. 

Scott Neilson a criminal defence lawyer for Tuckers Solicitors in Kent has taken part in over 25 video remand hearings using the VEJ technology. He says: “Kent has operated a "virtual court" at Medway for a number of years which sees defendants charged by the police and refused bail appear by a video screen in court from the police station. Previously, defence lawyers have either had to travel to Medway, attend a local Magistrates Court, or appear with their client at the police station to deal with the case. This has not been without problems as there can be a long queue which means other work cannot be undertaken.

“Whilst nothing can be better than actually seeing a client in person, the new video remand tool does still work, as I can now use my laptop to see my client and not have to travel unnecessarily. Even though there is still a lot of waiting involved at least I can get on with other work.

“The distancing required to combat COVID19 presented a real problem when it came to attending court and dealing with clients. I’m pleased that the VEJ programme has been extended so even more lawyers can deal with hearings remotely which has allowed us to still represent our clients from the safety of our own homes.

Sean Chapman Senior Probation Officer in Kent said: “Thank you to you and all the team for all the excellent support. I had my connectivity test today and I was very impressed with how the tool works.”

As the Senior Responsible Officer for the VEJ Programme, Deputy Chief Constable of Kent Police, Tony Blaker commented: “This collaboration between partners to make this happen, in such testing times, will enable safer working practices within criminal justice and will ensure that remand hearings continue to operate throughout the crisis.”

“Since its commencement three years ago, the VEJ Programme has successfully developed technical and process solutions to exploit the use of video in the Criminal Justice System, whilst understanding how the interests of justice can be served in a more efficient and less disruptive way. The processes, technology and change already implemented, and proven by the VEJ Programme, means that the public can be confident in the continuation of efficient remand hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Sussex Police ACC Julia Chapman said “This new technology allows us to put detainees virtually before the courts enabling us and our criminal justice partners to keep pace with and respond to the unique challenges that COVID-19 presents. By working together and adapting our working processes and practices, we can deliver fair and effective justice, while maintaining social distancing which is protecting the NHS and saving lives.”

Head of Criminal Justice & Custody for Sussex Police, Superintendent Simon Nelson said: “We are constantly seeking new ways in which we can support our criminal justice partners to deliver fair and effective justice. The new technology provided by the PCC and her team offers us further means to do this whilst supporting us to keep everyone in the criminal justice system as safe as possible at a time when self-distancing is saving lives.”

Read the evaluation

How was the Independent Evaluation undertaken?

The evaluation employed an approach which involved structured observations inside the video court, both before (‘pre-test’) and after (‘post-test’) the installation of the booking tool. Observations were also conducted across two non-video court control group settings. The first was where the defendant was denied police bail and was transported to the court for their hearing, and the second scenario was where the defendant had previously been granted police bail and/or appeared in court via a postal requisition or summons.

A total of 631 observations of First Appearance Remand Hearings were completed by the Independent Evaluation team. The data from the observations was supplemented with analysis from 46 semi-structured interviews conducted with courtroom professionals, former defendants and other key stakeholders from across the Criminal Justice System. Comparative analysis of the observations and semi-structured interview data supports the assessment of the differences and similarities as experienced by courtroom participants, between non-video court hearings and video court hearings before and after the introduction of the booking tool.

 

What was the impact of the video remand hearing process on a defendant’s demeanour?

The Final Report found that the profile of general demeanour recorded for defendants varied little between the video court hearings observed after the introduction of the booking tool and those conducted in non-video court where police bail had been denied. However the evaluation found that compared to non-video hearings a general shift towards more positively characterised momentary displays of demeanour were apparent.

The Independent Evaluation found that the video court made it more challenging for defence advocates and other court professionals to assess defendant demeanour and also more difficult for defence advocates to build rapport with their clients.

What was the impact of the booking tool on the length of remand hearings?

The Independent Evaluation found that the implementation of the booking tool had no effect on overall hearing length.  Further to this, video links to remote locations were established ahead of the start of the hearing (e.g. defendants were more likely to be sat in the video booth waiting for their hearing) and this suggested a possible efficiency gain, relative to the position of video court prior to implementation of the booking tool. In addition, the Independent Evaluation found that in most cases, the video link to the remote location was successfully established at the first attempt.

Whilst the Independent Evaluation did find that disruptions were more common in video court this was more likely to be participant-caused than technology-caused, and there was little evidence to suggest that the booking tool caused any disruption to hearings.

What was the impact of the booking tool on court listing?

Overall the Independent Evaluation found that the booking tool had a relatively modest and positive effect on the listing process. Whilst the Final Report states that some initial teething problems were reported (e.g. uncommunicated updates, issues moving multiple parties from the Video Waiting Area to the courtroom), these problems did not appear to persist.

The Independent Evaluation found that overall the VEJ solution was relatively unobtrusive and did not appear to affect the individual roles of courtroom professionals beyond its intended purpose within the listing process.

Whilst the evaluation found that the implementation of the booking tool was generally regarded as a positive step forward in terms of the listing process, resource constraints (e.g. police custody staffing levels) and infrastructure constraints (e.g., wireless internet issues, availability of video link booths) limited its optimal functioning.

What was the impact of video on the rate of adjournments and other outcomes?

The Final Report found that in relation to hearing outcomes, the rate of adjournments was higher in video court and increased in the hearings observed after the introduction of the booking tool. In addition, custodial sentences were more common in video hearings overall, relative to traditional hearings, but were less common in hearings in which the booking tool had been used relative to video hearings where the booking tool had not been used. Further to this, the Final Report states that since the booking tool does not flag a case to proceed until all necessary documentation is in place, it may be that the decline in custodial sentences relates to information provided by the documentation.

Was user feedback received in relation to the implementation of the booking tool?

The Independent Evaluation found that there was a general sense that the booking tool was functioning as well as it could, given the presence of confounding factors such as changes in other unrelated courtroom technologies during the implementation of the booking tool.

The Final Report advises that fieldwork was conducted at a time when the booking tool was used to establish links with custody suites, while some users had access to limited functionality of the tool and others did not yet have access to the tool. The Independent Evaluation found that although participants saw limited direct benefits for their roles, most recognised the broader role that video technology could play in the Criminal Justice System, particularly with respect to the giving of evidence over video link during trials.

The Evaluation found that user and stakeholder reservations about the increased use of video centred on the need for a properly resourced system, and that whilst a fully comprehensive evaluation would require assessment of a fully operational end-state system, the evidence from the present evaluation suggests that even the use of a partially built booking tool service can present benefits to the management of the listing process for First Appearance Remand Hearings in video courts.

 

What was the impact of the booking tool on ‘open justice’?

The Independent Evaluation reported concerns amongst users and stakeholders that video hearings afforded less opportunity to observe the proceedings for family members of parties to the hearing and for others, and that this could have broader implications for public trust and confidence in the courts in terms of ‘open justice’.

In addition to this, the Final Report highlights that concerns were raised by defendants regarding the view of the public gallery from the remote location, highlighting that the management of the public gallery in video court is an issue that requires further attention.

The Final Report states that whilst the move to centralised remand courts provides the opportunity to service work from a broader geographical location, participants were mindful of issues regarding local knowledge (e.g. when setting bail conditions) and/or reduced awareness of personal ‘case histories’ in relation to defendants.

Did the Evaluation find there were issues arising in relation to “overlapping speech” in the video court?

The Independent Evaluation found that overlapping speech was more prevalent in after-stage hearings, becoming more problematic in hearings with more than one remote participant, or when hearings were affected by issues with the quality of the audio and video in the courtroom.

Did the Evaluation address the current capability and quality of audio-visual equipment?

The Final Report found that there were critical points where the interaction of the booking tool and courtroom AV as an overall system exposed ongoing issues that are a bar to optional functionality. The Final Report advises that these issues have their basis in longstanding issues applicable across the court estate.

The Independent Evaluation sought to identify any unintended consequences associated with the booking tool and other changes introduced by the VEJ Programme, including the performance of other courtroom technology, such as the audio-visual (AV) equipment. The Final Report states that the performance of audio-visual equipment is dependent upon existing court infrastructure, including the connection speeds offered via the Justice Video Service (JVS).

The Independent Evaluation also found that issues with the quality of the audio were identified in the after-stage hearings and that, to mitigate these concerns, participants suggested the implementation of daily equipment checks and the establishment of minimum standards in relation to the functioning of the technology, both in terms of the network connection speeds and operation of the equipment.

The Final Report also found that inconsistencies in the set-up of custody suites (e.g. with regard to the quality and positioning of the camera and microphone) could create differences in terms of the audio-visual quality across hearings and suggests the need for standardisation.

Are defendants less likely to be represented in video courts?

The Independent Evaluation found that defendants in video court were less likely to have legal representation, compared to non-video hearings where police bail had been denied. The Final Report advises that the booking tool presently flags a case as ready to proceed regardless of representation and that this could be altered if representation was thought to be essential. If this is the case, the Independent Evaluation states it should be taken into account that despite a perception from jurists and prosecutors that cases involving unrepresented defendants took longer to complete, this was not supported in the evaluation data on hearing length.

What were the key recommendations arising from the Independent Evaluation?

The Independent Evaluation made the following key recommendations:

  • Planning for the introduction of a booking tool needs to be comprehensive, including all criminal justice agencies whose staff have a role in the court process.
  • All those with a role in the court process should be amply briefed in a timely way prior to the introduction of the booking tool.
  • Where a role involved in the court process plays a frontline part in the courtroom, dedicated training should be provided, with comprehensive takeaway documentation and the availability of ongoing guidance, advice and support.
  • The booking tool piloted and introduced during the evaluation period would benefit from a number of modest adjustments and additional features (reference page 11 of Final Report for the list of these).
  • Interview participants suggested that a limit to the number of cases that can be included on the court’s list in a single day should be introduced (albeit this may be a matter for a court service protocol rather than being imposed by the tool).
  • Given the limitations of older-generation video equipment currently installed in parts of the court estate, there is a need for significant investment in improved audio-video equipment, more end-points to enable access to online hearings, and enhanced internet connectivity to enable reliable and secure connection. The VEJ Programme provided funding for the upgrading of audio-visual equipment in the courtroom and the cost of such investments needs to be factored into any wider roll-out.
  • Daily equipment checks in both custody and the courtroom to ensure minimum standards of operation prior to the start of a day’s court session could help to minimise delays caused by faulty equipment or technology breakdowns. This could include checking network connection speeds as well as ensuring all of the microphones are fully charged and functioning properly. Robust contingency plans are required for instances where other courtroom technology fails.
  • Interview participants suggested that consideration should therefore be given to the positioning of the screens, to enable the bench to more easily keep the courtroom and the remote participant in view. Larger, adjustable screens were also cited as possible improvements.
  • The introduction of enhanced digital working through programmes such as the Common Platform were seen as ways through which some issues could be overcome, highlighting that the introduction of the booking tool needs to go hand in hand with more comprehensive solutions for electronic protocols in court.
  •  

How is the VEJ video manager solution now being used to maintain effective criminal justice capability during the Covid-19 pandemic?

As a result of the Covid-19 national emergency, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service commissioned the Video Enabled Justice Programme to deliver the full capability of the VEJ video manager solution, to optimise video remand hearings across its five-force region. This has enabled the remote working of prosecution, defence, probation and interpreters along with the detained persons in police custody into the existing designated remand hearing courts in Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk. In addition to this, the VEJ programme has also implemented video remand courts in Sussex and Surrey for the first time.

The deployment of the VEJ video manager solution has provided an automated process, in order to ensure cases and participants in remand hearings are efficiently co-ordinated. This is ensuring that hearings can be progressed without delays to the operation of courts and is mitigating the risk of case backlogs and the possibility of increased overnight stays of detainees in police custody.

Please note that the expansion of Video Remand Hearings across the five-force region, which took place in April 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, was not in the scope of the University of Surrey’s Independent Evaluation funded through the Home Office, as its fieldwork concluded prior to the pandemic.