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Benefits to having video-link witness statements lost to poor technology

Concern also remains over effective cross-examination compromised by recorded evidence

15 October 2015

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While calls for using technology to assist court users to give evidence remotely gather pace, the need to protect vulnerable witnesses remains a grave concern.

Speaking at a panel discussion entitled 'Preparing for the Reality of Virtual Courts' at this week's London Law Expo 2015 conference, Annabel Timan, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, acknowledged the benefits of virtual courts but erred on the side of caution in regard to vulnerable witnesses in criminal cases.

Timan said she had recently been involved with the section 28 pilot scheme at Kingston Crown Court.

Recalling an instance where a child had given evidence several months prior to trial, Timan explained that on the day the recorded evidence was to be played in court, the quality of the tape had deteriorated so badly it was unusable.

The witness evidence would have been excluded but for the child coming to the court and giving the evidence in a traditional way via video link.

The judge in the case had commented: 'This is not progress if you don't invest in the technology.'

'There are many benefits to having witnesses who are out of the jurisdiction in court via video link, but it only works if there is proper investment in proper technology', Timan said.

Timan, who has represented the 'Naked Rambler', also discussed the use of video-chat software, such as Skype, and finding a balance for when vulnerable witnesses ought to be present in court and when they should not.

There has been concern among members of the Bar that their ability to effectively cross-examine witnesses - based on observing a witnesses demeanour - will be relegated to the past.

On witnesses not attending court, Timan said: 'It is a step removed from having someone physically there so you are always going to lose something.'

'Within the criminal context, it's got to be a question of priorities,' she continued. 'Who is the witness in the case? Are they the most crucial witness in the case? How controversial is their actual evidence? What are the benefits of them giving evidence remotely?

'The better technology gets, the more you are able to see someone's demeanour.'

Matthew Rogers is an editorial assistant at Solicitors Journal @sportslawmatt

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Technology Procedures Courts & Judiciary