Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Should witnesses be interviewed by video link?

This is the proposal stated by the UK's Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly, according to the BBC. Djanogly claims that the Court system should "catch up" with modern technology. What to think of this recommendation?

One concern is to consider the purpose of interviewing witnesses. It is surely to ascertain evidence during a trial. We might then ask how best to ascertain trial evidence.

The Djanogly model holds that a witness statement in one setting is no different than in any other. It is purely a matter of indifference whether a witness is in a studio or sitting near a judge: the quality of his or her testimony will be equally valid and equally good.

We might consider a second model, the Being Present Model. This alternative says that circumstances matter. Take some examples to test your own intuitions. We often think less of someone who lies to another in person. Why? One reason is that is that "being present" matters. Think of anonymous online commentators. We might think their comments might be more genuine and have greater standing if their identity were readily revealed. A second reason is that we seem to have an in-built comfortability about honesty when confronting others. Thus, we find it easier to speak badly of others without their knowledge than to their face. It isn't easy to face up to one's views. A witness who says "yes, this is what happened that day" in a courtroom must show greater courage than if he or she were allowed to speak out of view, even if on camera.

This is not an argument for the Being Present Model in all cases. I readily recognize that there may be situations where video links and even anonymity may be valid. On the contrary, my argument is against the Djanogly argument for all cases.

Furthermore, we should hardly be surprised by what is perhaps a contributing factor to Djanogly's support for this view, namely, that the plan would save £15m a year in running costs and £22m in building maintenance costs. A country has the justice it is willing to afford. The bill can always be less. However, the importance of maintaining the highest standards in our Court system is higher than the costs that might be saved through this measure. Let us hope this idea is not rolled out.

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