Israel Advancing Legislation to Let Suspects Attend Court Hearings Digitally to Stem Coronavirus

The Israel Police, the Israel Prison Service and the Finance Ministry – which have pushed for years to replace in-person hearings with technological alternatives – all support the memorandum

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A court hearing over video conferencing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, May 7, 2020.
A court hearing over video conferencing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, May 7, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel’s Justice Ministry introduced a draft bill on Thursday which would see communications with criminal suspects be held digitally in order to avoid potential coronavirus outbreaks in Israeli prisons.

Suspects’ hearings have already been held though video chat in recent weeks because of the coronavirus emergency regulations.

The bill, which would be valid for one year under emergency procedures, would also enable hearings by telephone if video chat is not feasible. During that year, the justice and defense ministers would be able to decide when to hold hearings without the suspect’s presence. Each decision would be valid for one month. The ministers would decide “whether there is reasonable fear of infecting suspects or prisoners in the prison system because of the spread of the virus.”

The draft will now be circulated to various ministries for comment before the final draft is submitted to the cabinet for consideration, as is the case for bills introduced by the government and not lawmakers.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, jailed suspects have not been brought to hearings on extending their custody, so judges have not been able to get a direct impression of the prisoner’s state. In some instances, technical difficulties forced the hearings to be conducted via telephone.

Similar to the coronavirus regulations, the draft bill allow the court to demand that a suspect be brought in if the judge believes that holding a video hearing “would cause real and disproportionate harm to the suspect,” and if the court “needs to evaluate the prisoner face to face.” Still, the court president would have to file such a request while most hearings are held before whichever judge is on duty.

The Israel Police, the Israel Prison Service and the Finance Ministry – which has pushed to replace in-person hearings with technological alternatives for years – all support the draft bill. 

Prison Service officials say that ending the practice of bringing detained suspects to court means it would no longer need to transport them there, which often takes hours.

The State Comptroller’s report published this week also supported holding remote hearings. According to the report, the state could save 40 million shekels ($11.4 million) annually by not bringing detained suspects to court hearings. The state comptroller added that detainees going to hearings extend their remand on the day of or a few days before it is held, while the hearing itself lasts seven minutes on average.

A hearing is conducted by telephone at the Petah Tikva Magistrate's Court, May, 7, 2020.Credit: Bar Peleg

The Justice Ministry’s Public Defense Office opposes the draft bill, insisting on the right of the detainee to attend the court hearing so that the judge can look them in the eyes and see their state of being and hear their claims. The Public Defender Office commented that at a time when most of the country and public institutions are returning to routine, the state should “also consider the phased return of normal hearings.” The office added that using strictly a telephone is “highly problematic” and “doesn’t meet the minimum standard of a proper procedure,” and therefore only technologies that “enable a full-visual meeting” should be allowed.

“Emergency legislation devised in the wake of coronavirus developments conceals the considerable harm it causes to the rights of suspects, indicted individuals and prisoners,” the office stressed. “The experience collected so far on the ground teaches us that using technological means as an alternative to the presence of detainees at a hearing hurts the fairness of the process and makes it very hard to have visual contact between detainees and their lawyers, and between detainees and the court.”

The court system administration as well as the chairman of the Israel Bar Association have also opposed holding hearings via video. The bar association’s chairman, Avi Himi, said “When there is a coronavirus crisis, health is the highest importance, but it’s unacceptable that this arrangement should continue in normal times. It denies the most basic rights of the detainee and our ability to defend suspects, and I’m not prepared to live in a country in which the detention process is meaningless. We will oppose it with all our might.”

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