Do you receive me?

Back in May 1992 when live video links were used for the first time in the English civil court (Henderson v SBS Realisations), it would have cost more to fly a key witness over from Massachusetts than the £4,000 claim for damages which the court was administering over a missing antique clock.

Since 1992 video conferencing has become a widely accepted practice for the presentation of evidence in civil courts and its use has been keenly observed by criminal practitioners and those working in the prison service.

In 1993 a pilot scheme was set up and jointly run by the Home Office and the Bar Council, where video conferencing systems were installed in Dorchester, Shrewsbury and Canterbury prisons.

Prisoners were able to talk to their legal advisers and examine documents via a document camera, saving practitioners' time usually spent travelling to see prisoners when taking instructions before trials.

There were also provisions to allow prisoners to make contact with their families through the video link.

The ability of a criminal court to take evidence by live video link, however, rests on section 32 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. This does not allow the accused to give evidence via video link and also requires a defendant remanded in custody to be brought before a court in person when attending a remand hearing.

Any change which meant prisoners not having to physically go to court for hearings would require new legislation.

Reactions to the pilot scheme were mixed throughout the criminal justice system and to date little has been done to facilitate wider use of the system.

There are, however, several proponents of the system who are continuing to campaign for its use. Nadine Radford QC, chair of the Bar Services and IT committee is convinced the use of video conferencing throughout the prison service and criminal court system will make for a more humane and cost effective justice and penal system.

She says: "The time it takes me to travel to prisons is a waste of taxpayers' money. The resources that are needed to escort prisoners to and from court are unnecessary, prison officers are surely better utilised in prisons than travelling around the country. If prisoners were able to have regular contact with families and friends via video link they would no doubt be in a better mental state. A standard system costing £3,000 would pay for itself in no time."

Cyril Baldwin, head of custody at HMP Shrewsbury, is the main proponent for video technology in the prison service. He has had direct contact with the prisoners who have used the pilot scheme and has seen video conferencing at work in the US county courts.

He says: "All of our 14 participants were very positive about using video conferencing. Their only initial doubt was the system's confidentiality, but once we assured them that they weren't going to be tapped into or taped they were very happy."

In Massachusetts, Baldwin was encouraged by the use of video links in the courts, where prisoners are no longer required to attend remand hearings and bail applications in person, but are given access to multi camera set-ups linked directly from the prison to the court. Surrounded by five screens the defendant can see the judge, the district attorney, his family, the clerk and himself.

"In this way the defendant has a real feeling of being involved", says Baldwin. "But the real advantage is the speed at which court proceedings take place. A judge can now deal with up to 80 bail applications in a day compared to 30. The new system also eliminates the potential for escape and drug smuggling."

Since the pilot scheme HMP Shrewsbury has continued to use video linking where it can and Baldwin has continued to push for its use on a wider scale. Last month he used it to link a prisoner with his pregnant wife in Dublin.

Radford believes the opposition to the installation of video links within the criminal justice system comes from solicitors. Roger Ede, secretary of the criminal law committee at the Law Society is sceptical about video conferencing and does not believe it can replace face-to-face contact. "In most cases a practitioner will only need to contact his client once and in that meeting the client must be able to assess the person who is defending him and build up a sense of trust for him which I don't believe can be done via video conferencing. Reducing contact with clients is the beginning of the slippery slope towards cost and efficiency and away from justice.

"As far as court hearings are concerned, now that people can be recommended for 28 days in custody they would hardly ever need to appeal. I think emphasis should rather be applied to reducing ineffectual court hearings and improving prison visiting conditions.

"Increasing technology dehumanises the criminal justice process which is why I think solicitors tend to be opposed to it. Solicitors sometimes feel that barristers don't put enough emphasis on client care. People become solicitors because they want client contact, video conferencing would destroy that."