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Use of Skype at court


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Family lawyers and courts are blazing a bit of a trail with use of Skype technology for hearing low cost evidence from abroad.

In the recently reported case of Re ML (Use of Skype Technology) [2013] EWHC 2091 (Fam) Mr Justice Peter Jackson reports on two recent uses of Skype for evidence in the Family Division of the High Court.

skype-mIn one case a child’s Guardian and the CAFCASS officer were able to witness foreign parents living in Nepal giving formal consent to an adoption to reassure all concerned that consent was indeed freely given and without financial inducement.

In the other case, the facts of which are separately reported as Re S (A Child) [2013] EWHC 1295 (Fam), permission for use of Skype to give evidence directly in court from Colombia was initially refused, with the judge giving these reasons in ML:

The technology can be very effective for informal use, but does not lend itself to the court environment. There are problems in everyone seeing and hearing the picture and in the evidence being recorded. There are also issues about security. I would not be willing to use this method if there was any alternative.

However, the solicitors, Goodman Ray, found a company called eye network who were able to provide a ‘bridge’ between the witness using Skype and the ISDN system in place at court.

Jackson J was clearly impressed:

12. …This technology mediates between the systems and provides some protection against hacking. The Skype-user is provided with a download allowing them to connect to the court’s system. In addition to the program, the witness requires a PC, an internet connection, a webcam, a microphone and a mobile or landline number with which to contact the company for instructions via a multilingual team.

13. The quality of the link was adequate. The witness gave evidence for an hour at a cost of about £150. The cost of a full ISDN link would have been in the region of £1200. There is clearly the possibility of using this system in hearings involving witnesses in remote locations and in reducing the high international costs associated with ISDN.

The immigration tribunal opened the door to this kind of evidence in the case of Nare (evidence by electronic means) Zimbabwe [2011] UKUT 00443 (IAC), reported on Free Movement back in 2011 (‘Evidence by electronic means‘).

There has been very little if any take up since then, at least of which I am aware. This is particularly puzzling given that one would have thought witness evidence from ‘remote locations’ was likely to be rather useful in immigration hearings. Imagine being able to call as a witness the foreign carer or perhaps even the child herself in a sole responsibility refusal case, for example. Or, closer to home, using special measures for hearing from a vulnerable witness.

It is high time we immigration lawyers were a bit more imaginative about evidence and technology. If you have suggestions on other typical use case scenarios then do leave a comment.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.


7 Responses

  1. Was thinking about the issue of video links when listening to what has been said about the disadvantages of people giving evidence having their faces covered. I have been in hearings where they are used and it does seem to diminish the person. The fact that they are turned on and then turned off and are obviously not there to interact with other human beings in a living way, does, in my view have a negative and marginalising effect. However, perhaps the use of skype could have a positive role in immigration cases – though in many areas it will still not be available even to lawyers, NGOs, political activists etc.

    1. I agree entirely, and I think video link evidence at bail hearings is very damaging. It puts the detainee a further step removed from the judge and inevitably de-humanises the person, diminishing the importance that should be attached to their liberty. It is a part of the huge problem with bail and detention.

      But in an immigration scenario where there is genuinely no other option but long distance evidence I think there are real advantages of live evidence over a mere witness statement.

  2. With regard to being turned on and then turned off, it would appear at least a partial solution to leave the connection in place for the entire period during which the party concerned would be physically present if able to access the court. They would also hear the decision at the same time as the other parties.

    Alternatively, where identity needs to be verified in some way and/or the court needs to be sure that a person is speaking freely and/or telling the truth, a logical option would be to make statements (filmed or not) in embassies/consulates, with necessary verifications of idenity etc. by diplomatic officers. I don’t know of any country where this is an option and going to an embassy/consulate may not always be an option depending where a person is. But perhaps it woul be useful in some cases. Given that the embassies and diplomats are there anyway and that court link ups would not be a regular thing requiring significantly more resources, it shouldn’t be that expensive either. Also in as much as secure communication is possible, a link between an embassy and the FCO/HO/a court should be more secure than one over private internet connections.

  3. I read your article with interest as we are a bridging company who regularly provide the MET Police with court video conference links and this week have provided a video link to a London Immigration court, with the court connected via ISDN and the Doctor providing evidence was in the USA via a web browser link. The feedback from the counsel at the court was that they were extremely pleased with the quality of the call and the price too.

    If you would like any further information you can contact me on 01635 276067, many thanks, Marie Robinson, World Video Link, http://www.videoconferencebridge.com (bridging services division of ipoint-media plc)

  4. I use Skype a lot and have participated in several semi-formal and formal Skype conversations, including job interviews. The most recent was this morning. I have always found them, to some degree or another, deficient as compared to face-to-face interaction, and in at least one case disastrously so; communication (from a country from which asylum applicants also come) was so bad that the candidate was very seriously disadvantaged and there was nothing obvious that could be done about it. I can see that for simple matters (such as, just possibly, the formal giving of consent as mentioned in the blog) it might be adequate, but not for more complex interactions and/or cases where people are likely to be under stress already.

    I am told, though I have less experience of it because I can only use it when communicating with other Mac users, that FaceTime is more reliable than Skype, and certainly in my limited experience the picture quality is far better. I would still have reservations over communication quality though. Anyone who cannot see the non-verbal interactions among other participants in court is always likely to be at a serious disadvantage. Also, there are many other questions; where would the interpreter be located, for instance?

    1. Thanks, Tony. We received evidence from abroad from Asma Jahangir in the Country Guidance case on Ahmadis in Pakistan. It wasn’t my instructing solicitors who arranged it, though, and I’m not sure about the details. I think she was in New York at the time and was able to use a UK court compatible system.

      Her evidence was excellent and not diminished by the video link. Or at least, that was my perception. There were a few glitches and stutters but it was still very worthwhile and far, far better than merely a written report. Some of her answers to live questions and her reactions to what she was asked were very telling.

      In normal immigration appeals, I think the same probably applies – some live evidence in some form is better than none at all. In bail cases, though, it is simply a matter of cost that prevents applicants being there in person.