How Can Remote Hearings And Recorded Testimonies Be Harnessed To Combat Human Trafficking More Effectively?

by Jani Hannonen, Doctoral Researcher, University of Turku (Finland)

[This blog is part of a series on the pandemic. The introduction to the series can be found here.]

The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has reformed work culture, with many people suddenly having to work remotely. Not even the criminal justice system has escaped the pandemic unchanged because it has forced countries to arrange court hearings in a remote format or postpone them. In this blog post, I explore whether the increased use of technology in criminal procedure as a result of Covid-19 could be harnessed to combat human trafficking more effectively. I shall elaborate on the issue from the Finnish perspective that I’m personally most familiar with.

Human trafficking cases are cumbersome

Human trafficking is a severe transnational crime that can be concisely defined as exploitation of human beings for economic benefit. A key issue in combating human trafficking is the prevalent impunity of traffickers. Human trafficking cases can have victims, defendants and witnesses from many different countries due to its transnational nature. This causes major practical challenges for criminal procedure. Therefore, I argue that harnessing technology is especially important in human trafficking cases.

To highlight the importance of using technology in criminal procedure, consider this hypothetical human trafficking case as an example:

An entrepreneur in Eastern Finland wants to save money by using cheap labour in berry picking, so he hires twenty employees from Thailand promising good pay and working conditions. However, the entrepreneur eventually pays his employees considerably less than he should according to the law, the working conditions are horrible, and the employees are not allowed to stop working. Luckily, the exploitation is revealed in a routine check-up by the police and the work inspectorate.

The twenty Thai victims are interviewed by the police in the pre-trial investigation and a written memorandum is produced from each interview. Most of the victims return home to Thailand soon after. Approximately one year later, the pre-trial investigation is ready, the prosecutor has decided to prosecute, and it is time for a human trafficking trial in the District Court. The key witnesses are flown from Thailand to Finland for the three-day trial and translation services are required. The District Court decides to acquit the entrepreneur due to a lack of evidence. The prosecutor disagrees and takes the case to the Court of Appeal. The key witnesses are flown again from Thailand to Finland a year later. The Court of Appeal secures a conviction, and the case is closed.

As we can see from the hypothetical example, the criminal procedure would be very cumbersome in human trafficking cases without the possibility of a remote hearing or other means of utilizing technology. The cumbersome procedure would be a burden on the victims, and it would also cause expenses to taxpayers, as well as environmental harm.

Remote hearings should be routinely used in human trafficking cases

Remote hearings are trials in which at least some parties or witnesses are heard through a real-time video connection. Remote hearings challenge the traditional understanding of a trial as a physical event based on a contradictory process wherein all parties present their case in front of an impartial judge (and in some jurisdictions a jury or a similar layman audience). However, in a remote hearing, the contradictory nature of the process is not endangered as technology is only an alternative means of communication.

Anna-Liisa Autio and Laura Ervo aptly point out that Finland was exceptionally lucky because new procedural legislation on remote hearings was enacted just before the pandemic in 2019 (Autio & Ervo in Lakimies 5/2022, pp. 701–728). However, the legislation alone does not increase the use of technology. Covid-19 has given criminal justice professionals much-needed experience in using technology in criminal procedure and these experiences have mostly been positive. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control (HEUNI), Åbo Akademi, University of Tampere and the National Court Administration, Finnish judges are very open towards increasing remote hearings for victims in human trafficking cases (75% of the total 47 judges). Remote hearings were promoted already before the pandemic mostly due to efficiency reasons, but I dare to speculate that positive experiences from the pandemic have affected attitudes a great deal. According to the researchers involved in the survey, Miina Hiilloskivi and Inka Lilja, the most important aspect of remote hearings is that they are beneficial for the victims of crime. Trials can be traumatizing events and remote hearings make it easier for victims to participate. (Hiilloskivi & Lilja in Oikeus 1/2022, pp. 141–148)

Fortunately, since 2019 remote hearings have already been incorporated in some human trafficking trials, but the positive experiences from the pandemic support the routine use of technology. Remote hearings could be especially useful in transnational cases. For example, I’m aware of a human trafficking trial which was held in Finland and a witness was heard remotely from a Chinese court. However, establishing effective cooperation practices between states requires time and effort.

Interviews recorded in the pre-trial investigation should be used as evidence

Remote hearings do not necessarily make it easier to reach the witnesses or victims. One way to combat this problem would be to increase the permissibility of recorded interviews as evidence in human trafficking cases like the Finnish Parliament decided to do in February 2023. The law has not yet entered into force at the time of the writing. In Finland, it is already possible to use recorded interviews of children and also interviews of adult victims of sexual crime as evidence in the trial phase. This practice doesn’t originate from the pandemic but it is intrinsically connected to the overall technological development of criminal procedure which Covid-19 has greatly boosted.

In practice, this option means that the victims are heard only in the pre-trial phase. Their presence is no longer necessary in the trial because the recording is played in the court instead. Keeping the previous hypothetical example in mind, at least some of the 20 Thai victims could be heard at the police station once and for all. After the pre-trial investigation, the victims could move on with their lives if they so wish, but they would of course be allowed to participate in the trial and make claims for compensation.

Recorded interviews are reliable evidence from a legal psychological perspective because the victim’s memory is more accurate in the pre-trial investigation than in the trial a year later (Väisänen & Korkman in Defensor Legis 5/2014, pp. 721–739). According to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, ensuring the defendant’s right to cross-examination in the pre-trial phase is a prerequisite for using recorded interviews as evidence. Therefore, the entrepreneur suspected of human trafficking would be reserved the possibility to ask relevant questions from the victims through the interviewer.

However, from a strictly legal perspective using recorded interviews is not as straightforward as arranging remote hearings. Hiilloskivi and Lilja observed that some judges perceived recorded interviews to be weak evidence in sexual crime cases of adults because there is no possibility for a new cross-examination in the trial phase (Hiilloskivi & Lilja in Oikeus 1/2022, p. 146). The case is still taking form in the pre-trial investigation and therefore, it may be difficult to identify all relevant questions. Due to procedural safeguards, this is to the defendant’s advantage, which puts much pressure on the prosecution and the police to succeed in the interview. This problem has also been noted in the proposed government bill. Nonetheless, there is progressive regulation in Sweden according to which recorded interviews have been permitted as evidence in all cases since January 2022 as long as it is deemed appropriate by the court. It is interesting to see how these obstacles are overcome in Sweden in the next few years.

Testimonies should be recorded in lower courts for appellate court proceedings

If the physical presence of a victim or a witness is truly required in the trial, I argue that one occasion should be sufficient, during which the testimony should be recorded for appellate court proceedings. This would be a very useful practice in human trafficking cases which often rely on witness testimonies and require translation services. In Finland, there has been positive development in this sense. The Finnish Parliament has enacted legislation according to which the presentation of evidence is recorded in district courts and these recordings are used as evidence in later phases of the criminal procedure. However, the law has not yet entered into force at the time of writing.


The increased use of technology in the form of remote hearings and recorded testimonies could improve the well-being of victims in the criminal procedure. Simultaneously, this would make criminal procedure more effective and reduce the burden of multiple court appearances. We must not forget the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic: technology is the future of criminal procedure. This, in turn, is fruitful ground for academic research given the need for greater knowledge concerning the use of technology in protecting the victims of human trafficking, whilst also ensuring a fair trial for the defendant.


Autio, Anna-Liisa – Ervo, Laura: Pandemian ja digitalisaation vaikutukset käräjäoikeuksien toimintaan. Lakimies 5/2022, pp. 701–728.

Hiilloskivi, Miina – Lilja, Inka: Etäkuuleminen keinona suojella rikoksen uhria. Oikeus 1/2022, pp. 141–148.

Väisänen, Tiina – Korkman, Julia: Eräitä todistajan kertomuksen arviointiin liittyviä kipukohtia oikeuspsykologisen tiedon valossa. Defensor Legis 5/2014, pp. 721–739.

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