The rise of the virtual court

The Ministry of Justice has given the green light for an increase in the number of criminal cases held remotely, following the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

The Ministry has stated that new investment will fund video conference centres, allowing up to 90,000 cases to be heard from prison instead of court. This was later clarified, upon a request from the Law Society Gazette, that the hearings will be bail hearings. The estimated savings are £80m per year. .

The spending review will also invest in the ongoing HM Courts and Tribunal Service reform programme, which seeks to rationalise the “under-used court estate”. Over £700 million has been put aside to fully digitise the courts and create a more modern estate, which is thought to generate savings to the taxpayer of approximately £200 million a year from 2019-20.

This follows the recent consultation by the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee on proposals to impose explicit duties on courts to:

  • Use live links at every hearing at which such a link can be of use.
  • Use telephone conference facilities for the conduct of pre-trial case preparation hearings, and pre-trial case preparation discussions where no hearing is required.
  • Justify the convening of a hearing where no such hearing is compelled.
  • Justify requiring participants’ physical presence at a hearing where, as matters of law and of practicality, they could attend by live link or telephone.
  • Require the use of electronic means, such as email or other electronic messaging services, to deliver written applications, representations or reports to the court.

It is perhaps unfair to label the judicial system as being a slow adopter of technology. Certainly, practitioners will be aware that the use of video-links and digital displays has been around for some time, and prosecutors are serving more and more material in exclusively digital format. The changes suggested seem to be pushing for an increase in the scope and speed of technological changes, making a physical appearance in court only when necessary.

There is some skepticism as to the proposed cost savings. Whereas any prisoner being brought to court requires a certain amount of administration and security cost, transportation will have to continue for defendants facing trial. There are also likely to be delays, when inevitably issues arise during hearings requiring discussions between Counsel and defendant, traditionally whispered at the dock, have to be communicated via a private video link.

Practical changes are inevitable as technology moves on. The consultation is a welcome step, enabling those who use the criminal justice system to highlight any potential problems. It is vitally important that those seeking to make changes and save costs listen carefully to the comments of those who use the system on a daily basis.

For further information, see the Practical Law legal updates, Digital service of material and technology in prisons, 25 November 2015 and Consultation on the use of live links and telephone conferences in court hearings, 18 November 2015.

Practical Law David Bacon

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