Videoconferencing may become rule of law

1 Feb 2005

Courts, prisons and solicitors’ offices across Ireland may soon be kitted out with videoconferencing equipment as a practical way of speeding up and improving the effectiveness of criminal and civil trials, if recommendations in a report to the Department of Justice, Equlity and Law Reform by a committee of top legal minds are acted on.

The Committee on Videoconferencing, established last year by Justice Minister Michael McDowell TD and chaired by Supreme Court Judge Justice Susan Denham, has recommended the use of videoconferencing technology in the courts of Ireland and has argued that it could result in considerable cost savings in the Irish courts system.

The committee has recommended the establishment of a pilot project on videoconferencing in five courts and four prisons. The five courts are to be the Central Criminal Court in Dublin, the High Court in Dublin, Cloverhill Courthouse, a Circuit Court in Dublin and a District Court in Cork. The prisons include Cloverhill Remand Prison, Limerick Prison, Cork Prison and Castlerea Prison.

The committee identified bail and pre-trial hearings as particularly suited to the use of videoconferencing. It said that it was cognisant of concerns about people’s rights to appear in court and attached suggested draft legislation on the matter with the report to the minister.

It is understood that the building of videoconferencing facilities and private booths has begun in Cloverhill Prison and in offices at The Law Society, the Law Library and in a number of city centre solicitors’ offices, paving the way for prisoners and legal professionals to have “virtual visits”.

It is also understood that a major courthouse refurbishment in Washington Street in Cork is enabled with a technology court and videoconferencing facilities, and that cabling and infrastructure to support videoconferencing has been included in refurbishments finished in Ennis and Castlebar. Work is understood to be under way in Longford and Nenagh to allow for video conferencing and the recently approved Criminal Court complex in Dublin will have extensive technology and videoconferencing capability.

According to the committee all future projects of the Courts Service in county towns will include support for videoconferencing.

The committee argues that based on pre-trial criminal matters in other jurisdictions where videoconferencing has been used videoconferencing affords many advantages to the legal system including the reduction of inmate transportation costs, the elimination of security problems during transport, a reduction in the number of prison service personnel required at court as well as a reduction in tension by eliminating inmate moving and waiting in holding cells, not to mention the waste of court time spent on awaiting the arrival of inmates.

The committee added that the project should be evaluated when the pilot project has run for a year and argued that both the Courts Service and the Prison Service be supported financially in the implementation of their respective IT programmes, which include video conferencing.

Commenting on the committee’s report Denham said: “Technology challenges us in terms of our needs to invest in it, trust it, to become familiar with it. It poses great opportunities for increased efficiency, reduced security risks, reduced disturbance to prisoners and increase savings in terms of security and transport costs.

“We ought to embrace the possibilities posed by the extensive range of modern technology available to us. The increased security, enhanced efficiency and reduced costs will, by far, surpass any efforts or iinvestment needed to introduce the system,” she added.

By John Kennedy