Remanding Prisoners via Video Conferencing
Developing the Video Conferencing Project
Video conferencing is one of the major platforms in the application of modern information technology as an integral part of the reform of the Judiciary in Trinidad and Tobago. Video-conferencing has been in use at the Judiciary since 2005. It has been utilised in:
- Case Management Conferences in Civil Cases
- Remote witness testimony both locally and internationally
- Committee meetings and staff training
In 2006 the Department of Court Administration initiated discussions with key justice sector agencies with a view to establishing a pilot at the Scarborough Magistrates’ Court in Tobago to deal with remands via videoconferencing between the Prisons Service and the Court.
The intended Pilot was to be a forum to examine how inmates and their legal representatives could access the Courts via video-link. To facilitate this, equipment was acquired by the Judiciary and installed at the Scarborough Magistrates’ Court and the Tobago Prison. The re-configuration of both the Court and Prison facilities in Tobago was required after several rounds of consultation with the various stakeholders. This resulted in delays to the implementation of the Pilot Project.
At the final round of presentation to the Ministries of National Security and Public Administration in 2009, recommendations were considered to expand the Remand via Video Conference Pilot Project to include select courtrooms at the St. George West Magistrates’ Court, and the San Fernando Magistrates’ Court, and at the Port-of-Spain Prison and the male and female facilities at the Remand Yard, Golden Grove, Arouca.
In advancing this project, the Judiciary and the Prisons Service worked in partnership with the Ministry of Public Administration to install video-conferencing technology at the Court and Prison sites identified for the expanded pilot. Although a special prison grade unit was installed by the Judiciary at the Tobago Prison, the equipment provided at the additional prison sites did not meet the prison security specifications. The Judiciary is therefore working towards upgrading all the systems at the prison sites to a similar platform.
How Remand via Video Conferencing Works
The video-conference room at each Prison is actually an extension of the courtroom, and though it is at a remote location, all equipment is controlled by personnel at the Court. The introduction of this technology required extensive process re-engineering and training for the sitting Magistrate and his/her Team.
The Pilot is augmented by:
- Case management information systems software which captures and tracks case information;
- Audio/digital court recording technology which replaces the tedious and archaic method of long-hand note-taking; and
- Modern records management and case file tracking systems.
From the Prison, inmates will see and hear everything that takes place in the courtroom. The inmate is able to answer questions asked by the Attorneys or the presiding Magistrate, and is seen and heard by everyone in the courtroom. The video and audio of the videoconference are captured as a part of the Court record.
A special configuration at the Scarborough Magistrates’ Court facilitates confidential communication between Attorney and client, using an integrated solution comprising video-conference technology and audio/digital court recording technology. Notably, when the privacy function is activated, recordings cease until the consultation is ended. This configuration is now being implemented in the courtrooms selected at the St. George West and San Fernando Magistrates’ Courts. The Attorney for the accused may choose to be at the Court or the Prison site for the video conference.
Project Benefits and Opportunities
The benefits that will accrue to the Criminal Justice system in Trinidad and Tobago as a result of the video conferencing project are many. They include:
- Significant cost savings and improved security due to the reduced need for high security prisoner transport;
- Reduction in the volume of in–custody defendants to be processed and managed at court facilities, and the associated risks;
- Reassignment of a fair percentage of police officers who are currently assigned court and process duties to perform other important police duties;
- An opportunity to streamline the laws and procedures governing persons on remand; and
- Increased scope for Magistrates to manage and schedule case hearings and events to make them more meaningful and productive, thereby ensuring readiness of cases for trial at an earlier stage.
Video-conferencing presents opportunities not just for remand solutions but in other areas of the Court system:
- Remote testimony from vulnerable witnesses and witnesses abroad;
- Training and other interaction for Judicial Officers and staff over long distances with international facilitators;
- Court Hearings with multiple parties involved in the case interacting from various locations both locally and internationally in a virtual courtroom space.
The Judiciary will continue to exploit every advantage the technology offers as it continues to pursue its aspirations for an ultra modern court system in Trinidad and Tobago.