Call up the witness
Description of the videoconferencing facilities made available by Scottish Court Service in certain courts and other locations around the country
The Scottish Court Service (SCS), as part of its ongoing commitment to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of court proceedings by using new technology, is nearing completion of a project which will result in the installation of videoconferencing equipment in a total of 26 courtrooms.
The impetus for this current project was the coming into force of various pieces of legislation. Specifically, the following matters needed to be considered:
- providing live TV links between prisons and courts in terms of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003;
- developing audio-visual links between courts and other locations as required by the Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2004;
- establishing a service desk for the co-ordination of videoconferencing and live link facilities between EU member states as provided for by EC Regulation 1206/2001.
In the course of investigating these subjects, it became clear that the degree of overlap among them was such that they could be considered as a single project.
A pilot project was conducted at Glasgow Sheriff Court whereby prisoners appearing for full committal on petition proceedings could do so by way of a videoconferencing link. The first use of the link was made on 13 October 2003 when an inmate at Barlinnie Prison “appeared” in court for a committal hearing.
Following the successful pilot, the scheme has been extended to allow Barlinnie to link to the courts at Hamilton, Airdrie and Paisley. The links are used daily.
The Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2004 extended the definition of “vulnerable witness” far beyond the child witness provisions which had existed in the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. The Act also provides for witnesses giving evidence from a location remote from the court (another court or a social work office, for example).
The old CCTV equipment in use in some courts was restricted to use within the courthouse itself. It could not easily be modified to provide for evidence given from a remote location. The technology which would allow this type of remote evidence is the same videoconferencing standard which was used for the prison links. It made sense, therefore, to replace the old CCTV equipment with videoconferencing equipment.
EC Regulation 1206/2001 came into force on 1 January 2004 and required SCS to establish a central contact point for dealing with requests from member states to take the evidence of witnesses based in other parts of the EU. Six courts (one per sheriffdom) were designated as locations to be used for videoconferencing and teleconferencing between EU member states.
Again, the videoconferencing technology used for prison links can also be used for links to other EU states. It made sense, therefore, to combine the requirements so that maximum effect was achieved for the minimum outlay.
The current position
As a result of the rationalisation of the various demands, facilities for videoconferencing have been installed in every location where the High Court sits and in many of the larger sheriff court buildings. A full list of locations is available on the SCS website, www.scotcourts.gov.uk/resources/courtroomtech/courtroomtech.asp.
The standard installations consist of four flat-panel monitors each with a camera mounted above the screen, together with a videoconferencing unit and a main control unit, all of which are situated in the courtroom. A further screen and camera are installed in a witness room within the courthouse and this unit is, in turn, connected to a second videoconferencing device. The judge (or sheriff) has control of which cameras are activated at any one time so that as the witness is addressed by the judge and counsel they see the face of a single person in turn. The judge can also immediately terminate the connection at any time.
All the cameras and screens are connected to the courts’ internal network and can be interconnected across this to any court location in Scotland which has the required equipment. There is also a gateway from this network which allows connections to be made out over the telephone network, via ISDN lines, to any location in the world with suitable network connections and videoconferencing equipment.
This means that the court can take evidence from the witness room situated within the building or from any suitably equipped remote location. Likewise, the witness room may be used to give evidence to the local court or any remote court (either in Scotland or elsewhere).
When the in-court screens are not being used to take the evidence of witnesses, they can be used as standard monitors for the playback of video evidence etc using the electronic presentation of evidence units in court – see “Taking a line, online”, in the March Journal at page 38.
At the same time as installing the videoconferencing equipment, the opportunity was also taken to upgrade the general level of courtroom display equipment. At some locations, “hi-tech” courtrooms have been set up with additional fixed viewing screens set into the jury box, next to the witness stand and for the accused. There is usually at least one large wall-mounted plasma screen to allow the public and practitioners in the well of the court to view images or video. Those courts are, generally, in the areas of densest population and accommodate a large percentage of the cases being dealt with by SCS. The number and location of screens will vary from courtroom to courtroom due to the differing layouts.
The installation of remote witness facilities is likely to be of more benefit in distant courts which may not deal with a high volume of cases but where the inconvenience factor is greatest. The possible effects of a disruptive journey on a vulnerable witness cannot be ignored, but the cost of providing full videoconferencing facilities in every sheriff court is prohibitive.
Full facilities have been installed in at least one court in every sheriffdom, and in the first instance, cases should be transferred to these courts where possible. If the transfer cannot take place, practitioners should contact the SCS Electronic Service Delivery Unit (ESDU) to discuss what alternative solutions are available. Contact details are given at the end of this article.
In certain circumstances portable videoconferencing units can be transported to distant courts and set up on an ad hoc basis, but it should be borne in mind that these units do not provide the full facilities of judicial control or overview cameras. Moreover, the special provision of these portable units is likely to incur additional cost to set up and operate.
ESDU has an ongoing commitment to monitor usage of videoconferencing facilities in general. The full impact of the Vulnerable Witnesses Act is unknown at present, but operational experience will assist in determining whether the existing equipment provision requires to be adjusted.
The equipment currently installed allows a witness in, say, Paisley Sheriff Court to give evidence in a High Court trial calling in Aberdeen. While this has obvious benefits for a vulnerable witness in that they can travel to a nearby court and also avoid all contact with the accused, it nevertheless requires the witness to attend at a courthouse.
A natural extension of the vulnerable witnesses provisions would be to spare the witness the possible distress of attending a court altogether. To that end, the Operations and Policy Unit of SCS has recently appointed a project manager whose remit is to identify and equip “remote” locations which are not located in court buildings.
The intention is to have at least one remote witness suite per sheriffdom by November 2005. The first suite has been set up at the Office of the Public Guardian in Falkirk and others will follow in due course.
Benefits to practitioners
While the need to install videoconferencing equipment in courts was principally driven by legislative changes, there is no reason why the equipment cannot be used for the taking of evidence of any remote witness.
The equipment has already been used in the Court of Session to allow the evidence of an expert witness to be given from a videoconferencing suite in Singapore. The savings to the pursuer in that case ran to several thousand pounds. It has also been used in criminal cases to take evidence of witnesses from Australia, the USA and Spain. Although the witnesses would not have been classed as “vulnerable”, the inconvenience which would otherwise have been caused by requiring their attendance in Scotland would have been considerable.
The equipment is available free of charge for use by any court practitioner (subject to the agreement of parties and approval by the judge or sheriff) in any type of case. The Court of Session Rules Council is currently considering the need to draft rules to formalise the use of the equipment, but in the meantime all applications are considered on their merits.
SCS staff will operate the in-court equipment, but the arrangements to be made at the remote end of the link are a matter for parties. If additional equipment is required to be installed or located temporarily in a court without suitable facilities built in, there may be a charge incurred to cover the cost of installation and operation. Guidance is available on the SCS website (see the above link). Generally, it is best to arrange a test of the equipment for the day before the case is due to be heard, to ensure that it will function correctly and to allow parties an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the facilities.
If you need any further information about the availability and use of courtroom videoconferencing equipment, please get in touch with any member of the Scottish Court Service Electronic Service Delivery Unit (e: firstname.lastname@example.org; t: 0141 559 4590; f: 0141 4559 4585).