Fitting together all the pieces when hearing a murder trial is always challenging for the Crown Court. Add in multiple defendants and the impact of essential safety measures, and the picture becomes even more complicated.
COVID-19 forced all our operational staff across sites in England and Wales to be even more creative, innovative and adaptable. We accelerated how we develop and implement technology, particularly when hearing more cases through audio or video. All these factors came together recently, when my team worked with others across the criminal justice system to successfully run a murder trial involving multiple defendants (often known as ‘multi-handers’) at Preston Crown Court. But it was far from straight-forward.
A complex picture
The trial was large, high-profile, and complex.
The case itself focused on the death of a teenage student, mistakenly killed in a drive-by shooting in Blackburn last spring. It involved 8 defendants – 7 male and 1 female – with 4 of the males being held at a maximum security (Category A) prison.
Category A prisoners can only be supervised by a specialised cohort of HM Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) staff. COVID has further impacted on the availability of these staff members. For the 4 Category A prisoners to attend the trial in person, we would have needed 14 of these staff to travel to, and attend, court for as long as it lasted. This would have come at a high financial cost and left gaps to be managed in the prison they came from each morning.
The court also needed to plan for the needs of witnesses, families, other members of the public, Counsel (barristers), solicitors, media – a long list of people involved in the case. As lead judge, The Honourable Mr Justice Turner described it:
“There were fears among some that if the court even attempted to host an 8-handed trial over 10 weeks, then, as a result of COVID restrictions, no other courtrooms would be able to sit in the building over the whole of that period.”
Scheduled to span 10 weeks (and eventually running for 12), the trial’s implications on capacity at the court could have been not only huge, but long-lasting. But since COVID-19 has accelerated digital reform at HMCTS, remote solutions are more accessible, reliable and effective. Our staff have become more familiar with these systems, with the skills and confidence to use them as solutions to operational problems.
Last year, our cross-HMCTS working group developed solutions for hearing more high-profile multi-handed cases within social distancing restrictions. We identified use of tech as one of the most effective ways to get around the issue of space availability. We consolidated these findings into a multi-hander ‘toolkit’. Using this toolkit, the Preston team – led by delivery manager Julie Hitchen – set about exploring the tech solutions that were available, achievable, appropriate and, importantly, legal. We then began an intensive planning period during the run up to the trial date itself.
Working together to execute the plan
During weeks of collaboration, the team took on views of representatives from the prisons, legal representatives, media, families, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Prisoner Escort Custody Services (PECS), police, and others. They listened to their concerns, and developed a proposal that would not only help overcome the operational issues faced, but instil confidence in the ability of the court to make the trial happen.
Making use of experienced contacts and bespoke facilities at the Manchester prison, the Category A prisoners appeared on a big screen in the court via video link on most days, then attended in person when they gave evidence, fulfilling all legal requirements. The video link connection to the courtroom was through a newly installed Cloud Video Platform (CVP) room at the prison. CVP – an internet-based video meeting service that works a bit like Zoom – is one of several technological solutions that HMCTS has accelerated over the past 18 months and has been a real success story of court-working during the pandemic.
Greatly reducing the presence of the high-security prisoners each day unlocked more space for the court to keep certain defendants apart from each other, again observing legal demands.
Many others also attended via CVP, which ran securely, stably and reliably throughout. Police officers, journalists and relatives of those involved were all able to join the trial from their respective offices or locations. This helped to further minimise footfall and use up space in the court.
Ahead of the trial, the Preston team worked with colleagues in listing, clerks, ushers, security and other internal teams who took part in a day of behind-closed-doors testing. This provided The Honourable Mr Justice Turner with ultimate reassurance that the court was ready to proceed. At the conclusion, he commented:
“The careful deployment of CVP links to the prisons and the exercise of care in limiting physical court appearances to what was reasonably practicable was a challenging exercise in choreography but one which was achieved as a result of commendable co-ordination involving all stakeholders. I am also entirely satisfied that the vital requirement of access to justice was preserved throughout. I have nothing but praise for all those involved in bringing this ship home to port.”
A wealth of benefits
You may not think that hearing one trial in a new way can make a significant difference, but it really can. By deploying remote technology to hear this trial, which successfully concluded last month, we saved the department significant costs in prison transport and resource. And by confining a case that could have sprawled across the entire court, to just 2 linked courtrooms, we estimate that over the 10 weeks we saved capacity at Preston for up to an extra 50 trials, 250 sentencing hearings, and 20 appeals – not to mention around 500 pre-trial preparation, case management, pre-trial review, and mentions hearings.
These aren’t just numbers. Each one represents victims, witnesses, defendants and family members who have all benefitted from earlier access to our justice system.