The Confrontation Right and Technology

The case of New Mexico v Thomas came across my desk this morning. The  blog post that alterted me to it was primarily about judicial use of social media but the first sentence caught my eye. It stated that an appeal against conviction in a murder case was overturned because an expert witness for the prosecution testified via Skype, which the Court held violated the Confrontation Clause of the United States Constitution.

The “confrontation clause” requires the physical presence of witnesses at a criminal trial. There was a proposal to amend the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure in 2004, allowing unavailable witnesses to testify via two-way video. Justice Scalia said:

I cannot comprehend how one-way transmission . . . becomes transformed into full-fledged confrontation when reciprocal transmission is added. As we made clear in Craig, [497 U.S.] at 846-47, a purpose of the Confrontation Clause is ordinarily to compel accusers to make their accusations in the defendant’s presence—which is not equivalent to making them in a room that contains a television set beaming electrons that portray the defendant’s image. Virtual  confrontation might be sufficient to protect virtual constitutional rights; I doubt whether it is sufficient to protect real ones.

In the United States it is very difficult in light of the strength of the confrontation clause to have a witness testify via video-link. Technology can provide the necessary ability to “confront” via video link. Many of the obstructions to the proper evaluation of information needed by a fact-finder to arrive at a conclusion arise from practices rooted in the ritualised oral procedures of evidence giving that have surrounded the criminal jury trial. These procedures were perfectly satisfactory in an era where communication imperatives and an absence of the range of communication technologies present today mandated the “physical presence participation” model of the criminal jury trial.

It is my argument that the essential elements of the confrontation right may be maintained through the use of information technologies whilst dispensing with the inconveniences and costs of the “physical presence participation” model.

The justification for witnesses to be physically present in the Court for examination is no longer relevant when “virtual presence” by means of a high definition screen can enable a better and clearer view of a witness than is possible from a jury box across a courtroom to the witness stand. The questionable value of demeanour suggests that this justification for presence is at best arguable and in reality is a fallacy.[1] One could go so far as to suggest that video-conferencing technology may make it possible for witnesses to give evidence from remote locations and for the accused to be “virtually present” without compromising rights. “Visual presence” may replace “physical presence.”

Audio-visual (or videoconferencing) technology dispenses with the need for physical presence because it maintains the essential aspects of the confrontation right. The accused is able to hear the evidence that is given. There is the ability for cross examination. The availability of high definition screens means that there will be little if any image distortion for the accused or other participants located elsewhere.

In addition the provision of technology should pose little difficulty. There are a number of “video-conference” technologies available. At the moment New Zealand Courts use a dedicated Voice\Video over IP system that is effective but expensive and is not widely available.

In late May 2014 I participated in a test of video-conferencing software and electronic bundle software in a mock international trial.[2] All the participants were scattered – Auckland, New Zealand, Washington DC, London, Croydon and Edinburgh. The communications software used was Microsoft Lync  – now Skype for Business – and the Electronic Bundle was provided by Caselines, a product of Netmaster Solutions, an English company. The trial rapidly established the feasibility of the software tools, both of which are reasonably priced and are browser based which meant that no additional software needed to be installed on a user’s computer. In addition, the software meant that place did not matter – a classic example of the application of spatial technologies. From a technological and practical point of view, a remote hearing is possible, practical and feasible.

The use of video-conferencing or audio-visual technology is relatively common throughout the English and Commonwealth Courts. Section 32 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (UK) allows evidence to be given by a witness (other than the accused) by way of “live television link.” Leave is required if the witness is overseas. There is provision for pre-recorded testimony pursuant to section 27 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Rule 32 of the Civil Procedure Rules in England allow for evidence in civil proceedings to be given via video-link.[3]

The criminal Code of Canada contains provisions governing the reception of evidence by video and audio. The Canada Evidence Act applies to non-criminal matters under Federal law and if provincial statutes are silent, federal law is adopted. Individual Courts may have rules relating to the reception of evidence.[4] Australian Courts have deployed video-conferencing for court proceedings and the taking of evidence and for pre-trial matters – not unsurprising given the vast distances in that country.

However, despite what is clearly widespread use of video-conferencing in a number of jurisdictions there is still hesitancy, even among legislators. In the debate about the introduction of the Courts Remote Participation Act 2010 objections to AVL use had two major themes. The first, as may be expected, related to the confrontation right and the “physical presence” rule implied by s.25(e) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. The other related to some of the technological shortcomings surrounding the use of AVL. There was little opposition to AVL being used for procedural hearings but there was considerable objection to its use for a substantive hearing.

One suggestion was that without physical presence an accused could not keep tabs on the “cozy” conversation between counsel, the inattentive or snoozing juror or, worse still, the sleeping judge or that the camera may not be playing on the key participants at a vital stage. Such a suggestion ignores split screen and multi camera technology, along with voice activated cameras and swivelling cameras. The days of a single static camera are long gone. At no stage in the debate did there seem to be a consideration of the advantages or shortcomings of the use of technology to fulfil the purposes of the Bill of Rights Act or the Evidence Act. Rather, the visceral reaction was based upon the outrageous suggestion that a trial could take place other than in the physical presence of the accused.[5] A proper and informed debate on the use of technology in the Court system would have been preferable..

[1] Robert Fisher QC “The Demeanour Fallacy” [2014] NZ Law Review 575 at 582. See also Chris Gallavin “Demeanour Evidence as the backbone of the adversarial process” Lawtalk Issue 834 14 March 2014 http://www.lawsociety.org.nz/lawtalk/issue-837/demeanour-evidence-as-the-backbone-of-the-adversarial-process (last accessed 20 June 2014); Professor Ian R Coyle “How Do Decision Makers Decide When Witnesses Are Telling The Truth And What Can Be Done To Improve Their Accuracy In Making Assessments Of Witness Credibility?” Report to the Criminal Lawyers Association of Australia and New Zealand” 3 April 2013 p. 8; On the subject of demeanour generally see Professor Coyles extensive bibliography. See also Lindsley Smith” Juror Assessment of Veracity, Deception, and Credibility,” http://www.uark.edu/depts/comminfo/CLR/smith1.html

[2] For reports see http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/5041446.article?utm_source=dispatch&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=GAZ020614   http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-etrials-of-the-future-judges-take-part-in-pilot-that-could-revolutionise-court-system-9474101.html and for an interview with Judge Simon Brown QC on the effectiveness of the trial see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7r8RUwORvkc&feature=youtu.be

[3] Information on video-conferencing in the English Courts can be found here https://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/video-conferences

[4] For example the Court in Ontario may order that a hearing be conducted in whole or in part by means of a telephone conference call, video-conference or any other form of electronic communication, and “The Court may give directions to facilitate the conduct of a hearing by the use of any electronic or digital means of communication or storage or retrieval of information, or any other technology it considers appropriate.”

[5] For the debates see  Hansard Vol 664, p. 12266 http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/pb/debates/debates/49HansD_20100629_00001172/courts-remote-participation-bill-%E2%80%94-second-reading ; Hansard 30 June 2010 Vol 664 p. 12349 http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/pb/debates/debates/49HansD_20100630_00001105/courts-remote-participation-bill-%E2%80%94-in-committee ;

 

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One thought on “The Confrontation Right and Technology

  1. I remember in one trial that I was involved in, people were struck by the accused’s attempt to stare-out the main witness. I fear it did him no good, quite the opposite even.

    For better or worse, this would be lost in an electronic court.

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