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Top judge unveils vision of digital justice



Virtual courts seen as answer to justice crisis - if the technology works

Criminal court hearings could be replaced by virtual sessions taking evidence gathered from police body cams and open to all on the web if proposals published today by one of England's most senior judges are put in to effect. In an efficiency review commissioned against the background of unprecedented spending cuts, Sir Brian Leveson, president of the Queen's Bench Division, says that it is time for the justice system to catch up with the business world in its use of IT.

"There has been a marked failure on the part of the criminal justice system to utilise new and far more efficient ways of working."

Leveson - the judge who conducted the high-profile inquiry into press behaviour - observes that modernisers over the past 50 years have sought "to bolt procedures onto a system initially designed for the 19th century". Instead, he has "tried to identify ways in which our current procedures can be adapted to make the best use of the skills, resources, IT and systems available".

One theme is conducting the majority of criminal court hearings online, with witnesses and the defendant appearing by video. Such techniques are already being piloted for committal hearings in some areas, but Leveson says they should be used as a matter of routine. However he acknowledges "for the purposes of this review that trials and sentencing hearings - certainly as regards the latter when imprisonment is a possibility - will continue to take place conventionally in a courtroom".

The changes rely on the Criminal Justice System Common Platform programme being implemented by the Ministry of Justice which "will provide a comprehensive, only case-management system".

Online court hearings would allow members of the public to observe the proceedings. Noting that video conferencing has an "in-built" recording facility, he says "consideration should be given" to making the electronic court record generally available. "This will address the need for open justice, given remote hearings will otherwise take place in the absence of the public."

Meanwhile, police forces should continue testing body-worn cameras by officers "and mechanisms developed to ensure that this evidence can be deployed in court without disruption".

The report is likely to be seized upon by ministers anxious to show that more costs could be shaved from the criminal justice system. However Leveson adds several caveats to his high-tech vision. Introducing the report, he admits that "there is no quantitative analysis of the effect of the changes which are proposed". He also notes that after the shake-ups of the past 15 years "the review encountered what might best be described as 'transformation exhaustion'."

Pictured: scales of justice by Paul Clarke © |

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