A meeting held by video conference uses dedicated video conference equipment. Typically this is a “room based” system which is designed to accommodate up to 6–10 people. The equipment allows for “real time” or live audio and visual communication. Improvements over recent years in bandwidth, data encoding and system cameras mean that the quality is now near lifelike. In addition you can display documents, share a PowerPoint presentation or record the meeting for subsequent analysis.
Desktop or webcam solutions such as Skype are not of a high enough quality of connection to be accepted by courts.
Various courts around the UK have installed Polycom or Tandberg equipment which is capable of linking over ISDN or IP. In the main, UK courts will have ISDN, which is stable but offers a lower bandwidth and is more expensive to operate.
For a video conferencing session using public facilities, there will always be an on-site operator to make sure the connection is established and the equipment is properly calibrated. In addition, all links will have been tested at least 1 day before the actual connection. Because of the on-site operator, no special training is necessary for the participants.
In addition to using video conferencing for regular meetings between solicitors, barristers and clients, a wide range of law firms, courts and police agencies use videoconferencing for witness or expert testimony pre-trial or to link with the courts during the trial itself.
The witness at the far site has to be in a dedicated room without distraction, swears the oath and is then treated as if in court. The videoconference room is seen as an extension to the court.
UK courts have long accepted evidence by video conferencing and the frequency of use has risen exponentially since the year 2000 when Lord Justice North heard an application for permission to appeal from Leeds Court via video-link, its first use in a civil case. An early champion of the technology was Cherie Booth who sat on a Bar Council committee looking at its implementation in the late 90s. Australia, India, Pakistan, New Zealand and several other ex-British colonies also allow testimony in this way.
My own company, Eyenetwork, has provided facilities for lawyers at over 100 locations. Users include large law firms such as Allen & Overy to smaller practices and court locations from the Royal Courts to employment tribunals – and often for high profile cases. Confidentiality is a given, connectivity is our focus and with 3 bridges to choose from to increase our connectivity we have an impressive record of over 98 per cent full connection.
The costs involved reflect the cost of equipment, staffing and the usual overheads: room hire, scheduling fee and then connection charges.
An average price for a video link within Europe is £150 per hour (when in office hours). Then add a £35 scheduling fee for certification of the facilities, language support and brokerage overheads.
If ISDN is used there is a cost to the organization that dials the call – just like when making a phone call. Some courts choose to not dial out as they then have to account for the cost and would prefer that the case costs are more transparent, ie that the costs for the video link are all in one place. In this case, it is usual to connect the video link using a bridge (a bit like an operator). The added advantage to this is that it is managed by a person, it is charged down to the exact number of minutes connected and it is almost always by far the cheapest way to arrange the connection.
The Court of Appeal Civil Division has issued the following as a guide to when video conferencing is appropriate:
- cases where savings in costs can be achieved
- cases in which public disruption can be avoided
- cases in which early listing can be facilitated
- cases involving hospital patients or children
- cases involving parties overseas or
- cases involving prisoners
- emergency cases in which the parties cannot readily attend court
Providers of video conferencing facilities
The Law Society and the Bar Council have video conference facilities available for hire in London. However, in many cases where the witnesses may be overseas, for example, it is useful to use brokers who have facilities around the world and who specialise in providing rooms for witnesses.
The broker either has a network of rooms which they own or has a supplier network of privately owned rooms brokered under a branded name. The best known name apart from Eyenetwork is Regus. There are also several smaller brokers such as MVC in Germany and G2J in France.
The rise in use of video conferencing has in many cases speeded up proceedings in both civil and criminal cases by reducing the need for travel, but perhaps most importantly it allows people to access justice within the UK without being hindered by geographical boundaries.
Lisa Honan, is Managing Director and founder of Eyenetwork, Europe’s largest public video conference booking company with an international network of 3,500 public facilities in 126 countries. They do not own the rooms but have long standing relationships with local suppliers. Because of the international element of the service, they support 8 languages in-house.