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Monday, 15 June 2009

Virtual justice

As the Magistrates' Court of Victoria unveils its new virtual tour (following in the footsteps of Tasmania and South Australia), the United Kingdom is experimenting with another kind of virtual court experience.

The UK government is expanding its pilot virtual court to a number of police stations around London. The scheme has attracted lots of criticism. It allows summary matters to be dealt with by a magistrate and Crown prosecutor in a court building while accused and their counsel are in a linked room at a police station, often miles away. It's estimated the scheme - if fully implemented - could save the new UK Ministry of Justice around £15 million a year in prisoner transportation costs and early case-resolution.

The technology involved is similar to video links already in use in Victoria under Part IIA of the Evidence Act 1958. But under s 42K(2) there's a presumption against the use of video links here for sentencing hearings. The intent of the UK's Virtual Court is specifically to encourage an accused to enter a guilty plea and be sentenced soon after their offence - often within hours of arrest.

While the traditional common law position in Australia favoured the right of an accused to face their accuser, there are now two distinct lines of authority on the issue. One favours use of remote witness technology unless there are reasons not to; the other presumes against its use unless there are good reasons why it should be. The conflicting presumptive approaches are discussed in R v Goldman [2004] VSC 165.

Predictably, the longer the technology is around and the more familiar the courts become with its use, the less apprehension it generates. Coghlan J expressed a simple test  in R v McMahon [2008] VSC 615 when finding,

There is more likelihood in the circumstances of this case of the truth emerging by the use of remote facilities than otherwise.

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