Can Virtual Sentencing Reduce Court Backlog?

Can Virtual Sentencing Reduce Court Backlog? 30/09/2020

The legal industry has always been a bit on the old-fashioned side. But now, it seems that Covid-19 will bring it into the 21st century kicking and screaming. Due to the lockdown and social distancing requirements, there are now 480,000 cases waiting to be heard in magistrates’ courts and 41,000 in crown courts. While the UK government has opened 10 emergency “Nightingale courts” to tackle some of the backlog in civil cases, some fear that this may not be enough, both in terms of scope and in terms of effectiveness. The fact that one of these Nightingale courts is hosted in a medieval knight’s chamber in Peterborough Cathedral poetically highlights the dire need for the legal industry to turn towards new, unorthodox alternatives such as video conferencing platforms.

Though it has an uncreative name, Cloud Video Platform (CVP) offers a creative solution to this legal backlog. Originally planned in 2016 to allow criminal lawyers and their clients to communicate virtually, they are now being used for civil cases as well where jurors can join through their computer at home. For criminal cases, however, the legal industry is still weighing the pros and cons.

In addition to reducing the backlog, using CVP for criminal cases could be more advantageous than a physical, socially distanced hearing due to the fact that a full jury can still decide on the facts of the case. There are currently talks of reducing or even eliminating jury trials temporarily for certain in-person criminal cases – something that could possibly weaken the justice system and be avoided by going fully virtual.

On the other hand, there are limitations to CVP. Prisons are not designed with video conferencing rooms in mind and limited access to these rooms could mean that defendants are absent in their own trial – some are already missing their hearings. Furthermore, some lawyers are afraid that virtual juries just won’t be the same as traditional, physical juries. Would listening to witness testimony and cross examinations have the same impact when done behind an electronic screen?

Although tradition can sometimes hinder much needed progress, tradition is tradition for a reason: because it has worked in the past. In this new Covid-19 world, the legal industry will have to quickly find a balance between adapting to the times and preserving what works in order to alleviate the increasing backlog of cases.

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