Law committee extends video hearings pilot program

Despite opposition from the Bar Association and criticism from the Public Defender's Office, the Knesset Law Committee on Sunday approved for second and third reading a bill extending for a year a pilot program to allow remand hearings via video conference. The provisional law went into effect on January 23, 2007. It allows adults who have not been indicted and must be brought for remand in custody hearings to choose to participate via video conference. Two of the key conditions in the provisional law are that the suspect may consult in person with his lawyer before deciding whether to choose this option and that he must be represented in the video conference proceeding by a lawyer. The pilot project has been carried out between the Abu Kabir lockup in Jaffa and the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court. It has been monitored by a sociologist, Yoav Santo, who has studied data on part of the period that the pilot has been underway and submitted an interim report to the committee. Just a few days ago, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition filed by the Bar Association against last year's provisional law on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Among other things, the court said that the law, at this point, was provisional to see whether the project was beneficial. Therefore, it did not have to deal at this point with the question of whether it was constitutional. The Bar Association, however, continues to oppose the law as a violation of human rights. According to Rachel Toren, head of the association's Criminal Forum, it "causes damage to the basic right of any suspect to be present at a hearing in his case and, therefore, to his right to freedom and due process." Yona Hayar, the acting head of the Public Defender's Office in Tel Aviv, told the Knesset committee there were many technical problems with the project and that if these were not solved, they would constitute substantive problems that would render the program unacceptable. One example she gave was that there were incidents in which the sound technician arbitrarily cut off suspects while they were speaking even though he had no authority to do so. The only person who could cut off someone speaking in a hearing was the judge. Hayar said she had complained about the phenomenon several times but nothing had been done. She also complained that some judges had not kept a protocol of the proceedings and had not recorded whether or not the suspect preferred to appear before him in person or by video conference at upcoming hearings. Law Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson said he visited the courthouse to see how the project was coming along, and had been favorably impressed. He suggested expanding the project to include more lockups and magistrate's courts so that the committee could have a wider sample to judge from. He also suggested extending the pilot for one-and-a-half years. However, the committee decided to stick to the pilot at Abu Kabir for at least six more months and to authorize extending the project for only one year.