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Viewing booths will make online court hearings public



Ministry of Justice aims to ring-fence the internet in digital court plans

Members of the public will be able to view “virtual” court hearings from purpose-built booths in court buildings, the Government revealed today.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the Prisons and Courts Bill, which provides for an increasingly online justice system, also promises that court listings and case results will be published online.

As expected, the bill gives effect to proposals for digital justice set out in the Transforming our Justice System strategy. These include:

  • “Automatic online convictions with statutory standard penalty” for some criminal offences. Offenders charged with certain non-custodial offences such as evading transport fares will be able to plead guilty online, accept a conviction, and be issued a penalty which they can pay immediately.
  • Online courts. The bill provides for digital services to enable businesses to issue and pursue claims quickly. “This will give them vital confidence to do business here, and will enable our world leading justice system to remain the international destination of choice for dispute resolution,” the MoJ said.
  • Virtual hearings. These will be extended to allow victims of crime to take part without having to meet the accused face to face. “They will also enable many hearings, such as bail applications, to be resolved via video or telephone conferencing,” the ministry said.

Open justice

A consultation on the Government’s Transforming Justice plans revealed fears that the move online would threaten the principle of open justice. Responding earlier this month, the MoJ said: “We are currently developing a solution which will ensure that the principle of open justice is maintained as we move to digital channels.”

The idea of “public viewing centres” was proposed by Lord Justice Fulford, senior presiding judge last November. But judges are nervous about making proceedings openly available on the web, which would be seen as opening the way to TV coverage of all trials.

While no further details have been announced, the Government’s openness strategy seems to be to ring-fence the service to provide the equivalent of attendance at physical court hearings. The Ministry of Justice announcement stated: “We will put booths in court buildings to allow the public to view virtual hearings as they take place from anywhere in England and Wales. Court listings and case results will also be published online.”

Image by Michael D Beckwith, public domain through flickr

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