Review – “Gateways to Justice: Design and Operational Guidelines for Remote Participation in Court Proceedings”

Professor Tait recently sent me a 127 pages report on the topic of court remote appearances:

Rowden, E., Wallace, A., Tait, D., Hanson, M. & Jones, D. (2013), “Gateways to Justice: design and operational guidelines for remote participation in court proceedings” (University of Western Sydney: Sydney), accessed from:

This topic is very timely across all Canadian jurisdictions. The Canadian Centre for Court Technology – Centre canadien de technologie judiciaire (“CCCT”) chose remote appearances as a topic for its White Paper in 2012 (published in January 2013 and available here), and this week, the CCCT is offering a series of sessions on the same topic in a virtual environment provided by Forum 2012 Sponsor Avaya Government Solution – here is a pic of what it looks like (yes that’s my avatar in the picture):

Patrick Cormier, CEO CCCT, lecturing on electronic signatures and remote appearances in Avaya's virtual environment "Prof"

Patrick Cormier, CEO CCCT, lecturing on electronic signatures and remote appearances in Avaya’s virtual environment (10-15 June 2013)

In this post, I share my impressions on the “Gateways to Justice” report.

I’m a big fan of well written, well presented and easy to understand papers. This report fits that description. I recommend it to anyone interested in deploying or enhancing court remote appearances.

The report details the findings and recommendations of a three-year Australian research team. The report had four aims:

  1. Describe how social, technological and built environments of remote witness facilities affect the experience of justice participants;
  2. Identify factors that produce a greater sense of presence;
  3. Measure the impact of selected changes; and
  4. Develop best practices guidelines.

In the foreword by Justice Richard Refshauge, it is readily apparent that the research underlying the report was conducted with the appropriate context:

“Courts and justice departments have a duty of care to court users; they should ensure that people are treated courteously and their needs for information and safety are met. One group of users who require special attention are vulnerable witnesses, especially child witnesses and adult victims of sexual assault. Another such group are witnesses, defendants or accused persons who live substantial distances from the court.

Yet a further issue is caused by the increasing reliance of courts on testimony from experts, who may be based interstate or overseas. […]

There are also concerns about implications for cost, safety and security associated with transporting defendants to and from courts for preliminary hearings or bail applications.”

The report tackles remote appearance strategies, issues and recommendations along the following useful categorization:

  • 2 facets: process and design. The impact of implementing an “enhanced process”, “enhanced design” or both was separately assessed and measured in order to find out what changes had the most positive impact. “Enhanced process” includes, for example, testing and modifying the link with the remote participant prior to their scheduled appearance, whereas “enhanced design” would include, for example, to provide capacity to display documents and exhibits and for a remote participant self-view;
  • 4 stages: prior, threshold, the encounter and afterwards. “Threshold” is a bit less intuitive than the other stages – it seeks to describe transitions, for example, the period when a witness is about to remotely appear in court.

One can get a quick feel for the flavour and nature of recommendations by reading the “summary of key strategies for improving the remote encounter” at pp. 13-16 of the report.

The report contains a useful literature review and related findings, which can save a lot of reading, something most of us will appreciate (see p. 7 of the report).

The remote space as being “two rooms in one” (© 2011, Emma Rowden)

The remote space as being “two rooms in one”
(© 2011, Emma Rowden)

I also enjoy learning new ways to tackle the topic. One example is how the report characterizes the space of the remote location and then goes on to address related issues.

As it can be seen from “the remote space” diagram on the right, room A is what the remote participant sees. Room B is what in-court attendees see. An interesting recommendation is to plan for and offer to the judicial officer a separate video feed of the entire room, thereby enabling the judicial officer to exert real control over the remote location. Without this feed, there could be sources of distractions in room A that the judicial officer would have no way of seeing.

This separation of rooms A and B also allows for more precise recommendations with regards to room setup, decorum and layout.

On the plus side, I especially liked:

  • how the report is categorized (process v. design and the 4 stages);
  • the recognition of decorum and behaviour as an important part of a well-designed remote appearance solution;
  • independently testing design v. process factors to measure their respective impact; and
  • the inclusion of separate video feeds in the overall remote appearance experience: (a) remote room view for the judicial officer; and (b) to present documents or presentations for the remote participant.

I would have liked a discussion on proportionality. There is considerable research and information available on high-end remote appearance design and solutions, however, little is published on using low-end solutions. I understand the focus of the authors were vulnerable witnesses or expert witnesses in serious matters and that top quality communication is advocated in this report. I also understand that the study of low-end solutions was not within the scope of the report. Nevertheless, the trend in Canada is to adjust substantive and procedural safeguards to match the issues at stake in judicial proceedings. The obvious objective of this adjustment is for the Justice system to offer cost-effective litigation on a timely basis, otherwise litigants could shift to using alternative dispute resolution platforms and desert traditional courts and tribunals. Add the increasing budget cutting pressure in governments, query if low-end / high-volume litigation (e.g. small claims, landlord/tenant disputes) would be better served by allowing self-represented litigants to remotely appear in court using their own computer and camera? Admittedly, this raises a whole series of concerns, for example, whether simultaneous audio connection via phone would be better than computer audio, however, based on proportionality, I think the lower-end remote appearance avenue deserves further exploration.

I would also have liked a discussion of simultaneous remote appearances. How can one plan effectively for several remote appearances (design & process; 4 stages)? As remote appearances pick up in popularity, this issue is bound to be of increasing importance. It is not clear to me how can simultaneous remote appearances be optimally implemented and what would be a realisitic “cap” on the number of simultaneous remote appearances. I am also interested on how to implement “remote hot tubbing” of expert witnesses and if it can be done effectively (which I am not presuming).

Overall, I think this report deserves to be read first by anyone seeking to implement or improve remote appearances in adversarial settings. Next, if you are in Canada and are looking for information on the Canadian context, the CCCT White Paper 2012 on Court Remote Appearances (also available in French here) should be your next stop. Both papers read together will provide you with an excellent foundation to move forward.


  1. Patrick, you are very right to point to the connection between the increasingly prevalent enshrinement of proportionality as a Grundnorm in the reform of Canadian court procedures and the use of low-end technological solutions where they are feasible. I think the chief obstacles to deploying low-end solutions within court systems are partly technological in that so far the most popular PC-based AV communications platforms can’t deliver the quality of image desirable for viva voce hearings, and partly because of a reluctance to move in a direction that could result ultimately in a write-off of the large investment in high-quality closed circuit television that court systems made in the last 10-15 years. These concerns need not preclude use of low-end computer based AV solutions for remote appearances where no viva voce evidence is involved. The benefit of the investment in existing high-end videoconferencing technology need not be lost if solutions are found to bridge PC-based video feeds with the higher-end systems used by court networks and still achieve satisfactory and consistent image and audio quality. We should continue to search for those.

  2. Patrick Cormier

    Hi Greg,

    You’re right, most home hardware / software / bandwidth setups result in sub-par video, however, with bandwidth being increasingly available (as a general trend) and with many OEM cameras going HD, I think that the right software on the remote endpoint could do the trick and provide an acceptable remote appearance, if not optimal.

    As you point out — such endpoint software can connect to high end video equipment. Many courtrooms benefit and should be equipped with screens that can display lifesize remote court participants and many Vendors have endpoint software solutions for the remote user providing connectivity to higher end video equipment in courtrooms. There needs to be an increased awareness of such solutions.

  3. Dear Patrick,

    Thank you so much for such a great review of our work.

    Just to respond (briefly) to the two points you raise:

    High end v low end solutions: This hasn’t emerged as an issue yet in Australia but we are aware of desktop videoconferencing being used sometimes in courts and in some tribunals, and I agree with you that proportionality is an important consideration. We consider that the guidelines we’ve developed are capable of adaption to these ‘lower end’ type uses as well – the issue is really about educating those making decisions about the use of the technology as to what standards might be appropriate for their particular use, and having technical support available. So, for example, acoustics might be really important where you are taking evidence from a witness who is nervous, soft-voiced, or perhaps were credibility is an issue. But for an administrative type proceeding (such as pre-trial hearing on logistical issues), the quality of the sound may not be as important (although obviously necessary that all participants can hear each other).

    The other point to make, I guess, is that as the technology gets better and cheaper (and bandwidth improves) the distance between ‘high end’ and ‘low end’ performance might reduce. Also, why couldn’t a court or tribunal provide remote IT support to a participant at a remote location to assist them in configuring their set up for the best result?

    We actually came across several situations in interviews where judges had taken concurrent evidence by video link (‘hot tubbing’ – conjures up an image I always find a little off-putting!). How well it worked seemed to depend on the amount of care and attention given to the videoconferencing setup, e.g. ensuring appropriate site lines, and a couple of judges I interviewed were quite active in managing those aspects and ensuring they were addressed pre-trial.

    kind regards
    Anne Wallace

  4. Patrick Cormier

    Thank you Anne for these points!

    I like how you point out the active role of judges in ensuring the video-conference setup be addressed pre-trial.

    Typically, the court or tribunal will have IT support for this, but it is always better if the judicial officer takes an active supervisory role for this aspect of the proceedings. I will even go as far as saying that they can do so effectively after they read your report, should they not be familiar with remote appearance issues and considerations.