Bar optimistic about video links

Alison Laferla reports

When the Bar Council took the brave step of investing £70,000 in video conferencing equipment in 1991 it was soon apparent that the council was rather more avant-garde than its members.

In fact, lawyers revealed themselves to be rather reluctant to use the new technology and, according to video conference studio manager Julian Bradley, uptake was "not initially as significant as had been hoped".

But the signs are that the tide is turning, with more and more lawyers taking advantage of the suite at Chancery Lane, which is available 24 hours a day. Its bookings have almost doubled in the past year and a half and the Bar feels confident enough to spend another £25,000 on equipment, which was installed last week.

Despite the Bar's optimism, Bradley said there is still some reluctance to use video conferencing. "It is perceived as a last-minute solution to travel problems by first-time users, but once they have used it they keep coming back."

Critics feel that a cross-examination by video is not the same as having the witness there in court. The time delay between questions being asked and heard can be disconcerting and, depending on the quality of the picture, it may be harder to judge expressions on video.

"There is a perception that people might lose some of the rapport because video is an abstract media," said Bradley. "But the picture quality here is good and you can make eye contact. The time delay disciplines people into getting it right first time and so cases go through more quickly."

Bradley said the main advantage of using video conferencing is cost because video is cheaper than bringing to the UK a witness who lives in the Far East or Australasia.

He explained: "The typical overseas link-up costs £500 per hour and most witnesses do not spend more than two hours giving evidence."

At the moment about 80 per cent of the bookings at the Chancery Lane suite are for Bar-related work, mostly pre-trial conferences.

Criminal cases are restricted under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act to those involving killing or where the Serious Fraud Office has given instructions. The other 20 per cent are commercial bookings, including a link with a concert in Belgrade and international AGMs.

From February the Chancery Lane suite and a suite at 8 King Street Chambers in Manchester will be used in a new pilot scheme allowing lawyers to make applications to Queen's Bench Masters by video conference. If successful, the service may be extended nationwide.

Bradley wants to see video conferencing used even more widely and is campaigning for it to be made available in remand prisons, so criminal barristers can "see" their clients more easily. He said the technology, which is digital, is extremely secure and so poses no threat to security.