Policing and justice report

Consensus for extending use of live court links

The Department of Justice has outlined that there is vast support from experts and the wider public alike to extend the use of live links in courts and tribunals in Northern Ireland.

Since the 2020 Coronavirus Act came into force in March 2020, live links have been more extensively used. Use of live links for courts and tribunal services was not extensive prior to the outbreak of coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns which began in March 2020.

At the time, then Minister of Justice, Naomi Long MLA, obtained agreement from the Executive that the provisions included within schedule 27 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 would be extended beyond 24 March 2022 to support and facilitate continued use of live links in courts and tribunals, with particular emphasis on addressing any impact on the progression of cases through the courts as a result of the pandemic.

Long stated that there would be a need for a public consultation on future use of live links within the courts and tribunals before there would be an opportunity to introduce primary legislation within the Assembly. In October 2021, it was anticipated, that at least three extensions of the Schedule 27 live links provisions may be required.

In September 2022, then-Minister Long made a second Statutory Rule extending these ‘live links’ provisions to March 2023. The Department considered and concluded there was a public interest in making a further statutory rule days before the September 2022 extension was due to expire.

The approach for these pre-pandemic legislative provisions, within the civil and criminal courts, has been to identify proceedings which could be facilitated by live video link, or the receipt of evidence by video link, provided specified conditions were satisfied and the use of video link was approved by a relevant judge.

Engagement with stakeholders

The Department of Justice received 42 submissions on the continued use of video link. Of the 42 submissions, 41 of these proposed continuing the initiative, with one opposed. Most responses went on to make additional comment with over 10 per cent specifically recording that they disagreed with any suggestion there should be only one additional extension following the September 2023 statutory rule.

The majority of responses, including in particular those specifically working with children or victims engaged in court proceedings, were positive about the wider use of live links.

One of the prominent reasons summarised by the Department for support is the saving of public money. The report outlines how most legal practices, as well as organisations regularly engaging with courts or tribunals, had reorganised how they approached attendance at or for court. They expressed the desire to retain benefits such as:

  • reduced costs of travel;
  • more productive use of time and personnel by avoiding the unproductive waiting around in court buildings;
  • being able to provide attention to client/case care or complete tasks essential to the delivery of a public service while waiting to be called remotely to give evidence;
  • allowing to “more efficiently manage time and resources”; and
  • “enabling the involvement of experts outside of the jurisdiction without incurring the cost of them physically attending court” in this jurisdiction.

Although there is a general consensus for retaining the feature, challenges remain with the specifics, with reform proposed by many stakeholders. The most prominent of these were:

  • reducing the impact on people, especially those who are vulnerable, when going through what is already a stressful event;
  • attending court in this manner allows better management of time and resources for solicitor practices;
  • savings in time, cost, and impact on the environment (reducing the carbon footprint) with the reduction in travelling to and from court;
  • the benefit for children in giving evidence remotely in a child friendly and neutral environment;
  • reducing the risk of unplanned encounters with defendants or their relatives;
  • potential saving in costs of staff engaged in transportation; and
  • the saving in waiting time for practitioners, police, expert witnesses as well as making it cost effective to use expert witnesses from outside this jurisdiction.

Next steps

The Department of Justice states that it will reflect on the responses as some of the comments received go beyond the responsibilities of the Department.

The immediate need for a further extension of the Schedule 27 provisions to assist with addressing the backlog and throughput of cases has been accounted for in the short term via a statutory rule made on 21 September 2023 extending the live links provision until and including 24 March 2024.

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