Video courts on the way in SA?

23 January 2006

South Africa’s courtrooms are set to go the hi-tech route, with the accused taking part in proceedings from prison via video-conferencing facilities, in a system successfully pioneered at the Durban and Pinetown magistrate’s courts in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Mercury newspaper reports that the technology is already being used for half the cases – about 30 a day – heard at Court 10 in Durban, where those accused of serious and violent crimes make pre-trial court appearances.

The prisoners do not leave Westville Prison. Instead, they appear before the magistrate on a television set in the courtroom, the newspaper reports.

The hi-tech system allows for a two-way interaction, with the camera panning to whoever is speaking at the time. It also provides for private telephone conversations with attorneys and the exchange of documents via fax.

If implemented countrywide, the technology will save the government millions of rands in prisoner transportation costs – and end the risk of escapes, prisoner violence in vans and attacks on court orderlies.

Deon Boardman, the national manager of the project, told the Mercury that the aim was to simplify court procedures and improve efficiency.

“We are in the proof of concept stage,” he said. “It is an impact study and we aim to roll it out to other courts with high case volumes.

“The test period is six months. So far, it has gone so well. It is a joint venture between the Departments of Justice and of Correctional Services, the National Prosecuting Authority and the police. In April, a joint decision will be made regarding roll-out.”

Some 500 prisoners are transported every day from Westville Prison to various courts.

“It is an administrative nightmare,” Boardman told the Mercury. “They have to be checked out of the prison, transported to the courts, checked into the grill, handed over to the police, escorted to and from the courts, fed, and taken back to prison. All of this for a two-minute court appearance.

“The costs are enormous and the risk of escape is huge . this project is the way to go.”

The project began in October 2005, initially with only a few cases a day to allow the court staff to become used to the system and make the necessary mental adjustment.

“It was important for both court staff and prisoners to feel comfortable,” said Boardman. “All prisoners make their first appearance in the court itself so they know what the courtroom looks like.

“They are then informed that their next appearances will be via video.

“But if they want to come to court, they can. They simply make the request and they are requisitioned either the same day or the next day. But … most prisoners seem happy to appear on camera,” Boardman told the Mercury.

The idea for the system came from Peter Benson of Durban-based Digital Voice Processing, which now runs the project, who first saw the technology at work in the US state of Florida, and suggested it to the Justice Department. He said it was inexpensive, with the pilot project only costing about R230 000 so far.

“We worked out that if the department equipped every prison and one court in each courthouse with these video remand systems, the total cost of the technology would be recovered within nine months,” he told the Mercury.

“I am passionate about this project,” he said. “It will save millions and it will save lives . I want to see this thing happen even if I don’t get the final tender.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter