Video Enabled Justice: A catalyst for modernising access to justice
Video Enabled Justice (VEJ), is digital public services at their best. My first reaction to the proposal to scale up the use of video technology for giving evidence was “why aren’t we doing it already?” An approach that can save money and increase productivity, while also improving the experience for victims, witnesses and police officers, should be a no-brainer, provided it does not adversely affect justice outcomes.
We began with a lot of ambition and the past two years have shown that all criminal justice partners, including the police and courts, recognise the need to make the system more efficient and effective.
Police officers would be freed-up from hours of travel to, and waiting around at, court – often to find that trials were postponed or collapsed. Victims and witnesses would also be saved this time-consuming and demoralising experience. No wonder there was such appetite from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, as well as local partners.
The challenge was not getting people on board with the idea, but working out how to deliver VEJ in a system that is not in fact a seamless, coherent entity. As everyone who works in and around criminal justice knows, it is a set of multiple systems that co-exist without universal docking points.
In 2017, I secured £11.5 million from the Police Transformation Fund to embed VEJ across the South East Region, Norfolk, and Suffolk. As well as saving police officer, witness and victim time, the aim was also to minimise the need to move defendants to court for remand hearings.
In 2018, a proof of concept programme was launched in Kent that introduced a VEJ Video Manager tool across seven police custody suites, operating at the Medway Magistrates’ Courts.
In Sussex, my team introduced 14 live link video end points into specially adapted rooms across the police estate. The result was 2,000 officer hours saved – the equivalent of 241 shifts, or more than four and half hours per officer.
I also funded a video suite for vulnerable witnesses, including children that is sited in West Sussex. It is one of only a few such facilities in the country, and several witnesses have told us that without it they would not have come forward. Over the next year, three more video suites for vulnerable witnesses will be established in Sussex.
The VEJ project in Kent proved the concept of video technology for first appearance video remand and, since June 2019, 4,000 hearings have been video enabled.
One promising outcome from the collaboration with criminal justice partners, which has involved mapping interactions and inter-dependencies, is the development of a criminal justice “dashboard”.
This displays the time and resources necessary to get evidence into court and, combined with software tools, can forecast and track efficiency benefits across our partners. In short, it visualises the benefits of the investment.
The VEJ approach has helped to accelerate aspects of the much bigger HM Courts & Tribunals Service programme, highlighting for example, the need for extended court hours and the higher volume of cases that could then be processed.
As a Police and Crime Commissioner and principle sponsor of the VEJ programme, I have been able to challenge, explore and support innovation because of my independence. At times, our ideas and my enthusiasm to implement them have made waves, but these have subsided as the benefits of Video Enabled Justice has become clear for all to see.