A report on issues raised by the increased use of video links in criminal trials has highlighted a need for additional infrastructure at courts and prisons around the country.
The Video-Conferencing Cross Agency Working Group (VCWG), set up in July 2020 to assess the impact of using video links in criminal trials, also says that District Court rules could be amended to facilitate electronic service of Books of Evidence (BOE).
In its interim report, the group sets out submissions made to the group, and issues raised so far in its deliberations.
Statements of truth
The report says that the capacity to serve and lodge books of evidence electronically could “further enhance the efficiency, safety and agility of District Court operations”.
It adds that the stakeholders concerned are currently looking at potential amendments to the court’s rules that could facilitate this “in appropriate cases, where accused persons consent, and defence solicitors request such service”.
“A legislative amendment to permit the lodgement of statements of truth to prove service of books of evidence, rather than statutory declarations of service, could further facilitate video-link returns for trial, and enhance the efficiency of the return-for-trial process overall,” the VCWG states.
Caution on juvenile cases
On infrastructure, the group points to the need, in particular, to improve facilities at Court 55 (the Children’s Court), which is not video-link enabled. It says that witnesses and complainants would benefit from this.
It adds that the Probation Service does not have video-link facilities, and relies on the Irish Prison Service (IPS) link.
It warns, however, that video link must be used cautiously in cases involving juvenile accused, to ensure that they are not prejudiced by any resulting barrier to communication with their guardians or legal representatives, and that they can understand the court proceedings.
“However, concern has been expressed about the fact that a small number of children on remand have been produced before the court for procedural applications over the course of several consecutive days, which has disrupted their educational and rehabilitative routine,” the report says.
The VCWG also highlights calls for a review of section 28 of the Extradition Act 1965, which requires that accused persons be brought to court in person.
It points out that section 24 of the Civil and Criminal Miscellaneous Provisions Act excludes the possibility of producing accused persons by video link for their first appearance in court in extradition cases.
“These legislative limitations caused problems for an Garda Síochána (AGS), Court Services and IPS over the course of the pandemic, when all persons travelling to this jurisdiction were required to restrict their movements due to increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in the course of travel,” the report states.
The working group says consideration should be given to having custody cases that are being heard by video link listed in specially assigned ‘alternative courts’ such as Cloverhill or Portlaoise.
This could alleviate a scheduling problem identified by IPS, caused by the fact that all prisoners appearing before courts by video link throughout the country need to be produced at 10.30am.
“If specific ‘alternative courts’ were designated to deal with video-link applications, each prison could be given an allocated time-slot in each alternative court,” the report suggests.
The working group comprises a number of State agencies – including the Courts Service, AGS, IPS, the office of the DPP, and the Probation Service, as well as representatives of Government departments.