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Legal leaders criticise £1 billion digital courts scheme

07/11/17

Barristers’ chief and justice campaigners speak out against ‘ill conceived reform’ 

The Ministry of Justice’s £1 billion plan for technology based reform of the courts system seems set for a rough ride from lawyers and trade unions.

Justice statueIn a blistering attack last weekend, Andrew Langdon QC, the leader of England and Wales’ barristers, pledged to oppose what he called “ill conceived reform”. This follows warnings by the campaign group Transform Justice that holding hearings on video could affect outcomes, notably in encouraging more of the accused to plead guilty.

Meanwhile public sector union PCS has threatened industrial action over a key part of the reform, a scheme to merge administrative staff into three centres.

As UK Authority reported yesterday, HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s planned innovations include:

  • A long awaited roll out of the 'common platform' for handling criminal cases across different agencies. Among other things this will replace Libra, a green screen system dating back to the 1980s.
  • Virtual hearings to allow defendants to appear before magistrates from police station cells.
  • Online guilty pleas for minor offences.
  • Digital case management in the family courts.
  • Online appeals and case tracking for social security and child benefit decisions.
  • An online court for handling civil claims up to £10,000, taking on much of the county court’s work. This is currently in beta test. 

Speaking at the annual conference of the Bar Council, which represents some 15,000 barristers practising in England and Wales, HMCTS’s chief executive, Susan Acland-Hood, attempted to build bridges with critics.

She attacked as “myths” criticisms that digital processes would threaten citizens’ access to justice. “We are going to bring parts of the system within reach of people who currently don't have access,” she said. She also introduced lawyers to the benefits of agile project management. “How are we going to make sure it works? By building in small bits, components, put them out in use then changing them quickly.”

Undervalued

But Langdon, chair of the Bar Council, warned the Government that, after decades of cuts in legal aid, the legal profession was in no mood to cooperate. “We believe that justice is undervalued,” he said, adding that the the way it is treated by officialdom “borders on contempt”.

He said that lawyers would oppose plans for more flexible court sittings. “We are also concerned about the quality of court proceedings that become virtual. What is the impact on open justice? We suggest there has been insufficient research, particularly in relation to wider public confidence in the delivery of virtual justice.”

Another organisation claiming the reforms are being pushed through with insufficient research is charity Transform Justice. In a report last month raising questions about virtual hearings in criminal trials, it said a survey suggests that video hearings reduce defendants’ understanding of, and respect for, the process. Despite such concerns, the Ministry of Justice has carried out no research on virtual hearings from police stations since 2010.

Industrial action 

The Ministry of Justice countered by saying that video hearings save court time, improve public safety and save taxpayers’ money.

A more immediate worry for the Government is the prospect of strikes over plans to cut up to 700 jobs as part of the reforms. HMCTS said it will redeploy existing staff, but the Public and Commercial Services Union was not impressed. Failure to act on its concerns “will give us no alternative but to actively consider all other means to stop the closures, including industrial action”, its general secretary Mark Serwotka said.

Image from iStock

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