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Exclusive: Serving justice from afar – the rise of virtual courtrooms

Simon Watson, cloud and video services lead, at Kinly, on the UK’s remote courtroom revolution

As of March, it was three years since the government initially mandated individuals to work from home, whenever feasible, at the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak.

With this order – enforced to reduce the spread of the fatal disease — organisations across the country found themselves needing to make their entire workforce virtual practically overnight; triggering the most significant shift in professional working arrangements of the modern era.

As the stay-at-home order was enforced, not only did people have to work from home, courtrooms across the UK also had to close their doors, causing a huge backlog in the already over-stretched justice system.

In order to get the system back up and running, all the details and historic precedents of a courtroom were transferred into the virtual world through digital courtrooms.

Today, these digital courtrooms are becoming a staple of the UK justice system. In fact, 70% of all members of the English judiciary have experienced a virtual hearing and 66% rated this experience as favourable. 

So, why are digital courtrooms so popular? The answer is simple: ease and efficiency. The number of individuals involved in organising an in-person court case is larger than you might think. Legal counsel, judges, jurors (where required), witnesses, the accused, the officers who secure them, those who transport the accused to the courtroom, those that give evidence… this list goes on. 

By conducting court in a virtual space, a lot of these logistics disappear, meaning court clerks, judges and law enforcement officers can focus on other key responsibilities, while not having to worry about transferring participants to the right room at the right time or starting and stopping recordings during hearings when the judge calls for a break.

Allowing for virtual attendance also means that external people in a court case, like a police officer giving evidence, can join by video from a secure location within their workspace, this way giving evidence takes ten minutes rather than half a working day. There is also a huge benefit for citizens who live in rural areas – suddenly jury service can be done from your home rather than travelling to the city

Although the benefits of a digital courtroom are clear, transferring a traditional English court into a virtual AV environment is no mean feat.

Firstly, not all courts are the same. A lower court with one judge will require a very different setup of virtual rooms and roles than a magistrate court with three judges. At the same time, UK court proceedings also involve a large amount of ceremony. When people stand up and sit down, how long before a judge enters the room, when a witness takes to the stand — all of these subtle traditions are part of the UK’s legal proceedings, many of which had to be recreated online.

Given the complexities of this environment, the technical solutions used must be flexible to fit the requirements and workflow of each court. These solutions also need to be technology agnostic.

It’s easy to think that setting up a digital court is all about getting the best audio and visual equipment in place, and that is part of it. But ultimately, the workflow of the virtual court has to work across a wide and inclusive range of AV hardware in a secure way.

No matter what that court may look like, or what workflow it will require, the most important factor to consider is privacy.

As such, digital courts have multiple features available to ensure privacy and due process. These include waiting and screening rooms that allow for an identification process to take place and can also separate opposing legal parties.

Once participants are in the hearing, options to remove the naming roster, mute participants, raise hand to speak, blocking of presentation capabilities and obscuring PSTN phone numbers all help to keep privacy and the hearing itself in order.

At the height of the pandemic over 5,000 virtual court cases were taking place per day, and this figure has only continued to grow. Although this was initially a Covid-19 measure, just like the rest of the working world, the UK justice system has seen the immense benefits of digitising the courtroom processes.

And with Governments always looking for ways to keep the judicial system robust and accessible to all citizens, the rise of digital courts will not be plateauing any time soon.