The former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service has said the “unprecedented” decision to allow Harry Dunn’s killer to face justice virtually is not likely to be repeated.
Nick Vamos told the PA news agency Anne Sacoolas could have “simply turned her video-link off and walked away” at any point in proceedings.
Sacoolas, 45, pleaded guilty to causing Mr Dunn’s death by dangerous driving as she appeared virtually from her lawyer’s offices in Washington DC on Thursday.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill, told PA the proceedings were “firmly controlled at all stages by the judiciary”, adding: “We apply the law that is in force at the time that the hearing takes place.”
Mr Vamos, who is now head of business crime at law firm Peters & Peters, said: “What’s unprecedented is that the proceedings are conducted entirely remotely from start to finish.
“There are provisions in the law to allow people to appear through video-links at various stages.
“But to go from the start to the finish without the defendant ever setting foot in this country, let alone in the courtroom, is unprecedented.”
Mr Vamos said the CPS’s ability to conduct remote proceedings derives from coronavirus legislation, which allows even the most important court sessions, such as plea and sentence hearings, to be done virtually.
He told PA: “The reason why we don’t do that normally is because it means the court has no control over the defendants
“The whole principle of criminal justice is that the defendant surrenders to the court, is under the control of the court, and has to do whatever the court directs.
“Yet Anne Sacoolas hasn’t done that.
“She could at any point in these proceedings have simply turned her video-link off and walked away, and there’s nothing the court could have done about it.
“So the idea that it depends on her consent, as opposed to the court’s power, is very unusual and it’s led to these unprecedented circumstances.
“I’m surprised that they’ve gone to this option.
“It’s what supporters of the family wanted and it’s what I advised them the CPS has the power to do, but it’s still surprised me that the CPS have chosen to do it.
“Firstly, it’s a way of circumventing extradition.
“So forget Anne Sacoolas for a moment; think about an international fraudster or drug trafficker… who’s managed to leave the country ahead of being charged and therefore couldn’t be held in custody.
“They might say, ‘Well, I don’t want to come back to the UK, I’d just like to phone it in. I’ll join the trial from wherever I am now … and we’ll go all the way through to the end and see what happens’.
“That’s just not what anybody would call justice. You don’t give the defendant the choice of whether to come back or not.
“So it might be justified in Anne Sacoolas’s case because of the unusual circumstances, because she’s effectively consenting.
“But it’s really hard to see how it could be justified as a general rule that if you’d rather not be extradited and stay put, you can just dial into your trial, or drop out if you choose.
“It rather does undermine the power of the court because, as I said at the start, the principle is that the court has control over the defendant – can order the defendant to come, go, go into custody, released on bail if necessary.
“None of that applies here. She seems to have as much power as the court as to what happens, and that, in principle, is wrong.”
Addressing whether other defendants would be able to elect to face virtual criminal proceedings, Mr Vamos said: “I hope that this isn’t a precedent for doing this again… and I’m sure that the court agree and the CPS agree.
“Nobody could come along in the future and say, ‘I now have a right to entirely remote trial because Anne Sacoolas did’, because the CPS would just say, ‘We’re not going to support that application, your position is completely different’.
“So it’s a proof of concept, which I think was justified in in this case because it’s so exceptional, but I don’t think it will be repeated.”
Asked why the CPS decided to conduct remote proceedings in Sacoolas’s case, the DPP said: “We apply the law that is in force at the time that the hearing takes place.
“The law as enacted by Parliament on remote attendance at court hearings has changed, first during the Covid period and now looking forward after recovery.
“But these proceedings are not concluded, they are firmly controlled at all stages by the judiciary, it’s quite wrong for me to comment any further than saying that I hope it is clear to everyone that we at the CPS are doing everything we possibly can to achieve justice for Harry Dunn’s family.”