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MSPs express caution over ‘digital justice’

12/01/22

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Scottish Parliament

Members of the Scottish Parliament have called for a review of the national government’s proposals to extend ‘digital justice’ arrangements.

It has come as part of the Criminal Justice Committee’s new report on priorities for the sector, outlining a broad set of plans to maintain a fair justice process, improve prisons and reduce reoffending.

A section of the report focuses on the impact of Covid-19 on the justice system and how digital channels – notably remote attendance in courts and tribunals, remote balloting of juries and the use of electronic signatures – have helped to restrain growth in the backlog of cases. This required approval by the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government is currently consulting on a proposal for an extension of the provision and whether some elements could be made permanent.

The MSPs report that there have been criticisms of the digital justice approach for impacting the quality of communication in court, removing some of the gravitas of a trial, and that evidential hearings are less suited to being held online.

This has prompted them to say that while there is strong support for some of the measures in response to the pandemic to continue, there are also real concerns about others.

Need for genuine merit

“Our view is that a proper assessment has to be made of the various proposals for digital justice,” the report says. “They should only progress if there is genuine merit in the proposals, rather than simply being a matter of a cost saving or administrative inconvenience.

“Whilst we accept there may never be unanimity, there must be a general consensus from the main participants and we cannot make fundamental changes to how our court system functions and the rights of individuals involved without full and proper debate.”

In its recommendations, the committee says it will hold and evidence session with the cabinet secretary for justice and veterans on the issue of making the digital justice changes permanent.

Commenting on the overall report, committee convenor Audrey Nicoll MSP, said: “We believe we have set out a balanced and proportionate action plan which may go some way to improving the criminal justice sector.

“We’ll be taking stock of progress at regular intervals during the remainder of this parliamentary session.”

Image from iStock, rogerpilkington

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