Public Services > Justice

Vulnerable witness pilots to be expanded under digital court reforms

Neil Merrett Published 16 September 2016

Individuals such as children will be examined in pre-recorded court sessions as part of wider £1bn transformation of legal system with view to improved access and efficiency for public and staff


The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has opened up a consultation on modernising judicial work practices in line with digital court reforms valued at £1bn that include expanding pilot projects across the UK from next year to remove the need for vulnerable victims and witnesses to appear directly in court.

As part of recommendations from a joint paper from Lord Chancellor, Elizabeth Truss, as well as the lord chief justice and the senior president of tribunals, cross examinations recorded pre-trial will now be broadcast during open court sessions in a strategy designed to reduce potentially traumatic appearances for individuals.

Previously trialled in three crown courts in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-upon-Thames, the measures form part of wider ongoing work to cut out paper processes within the courts and tribunals system and improve overall efficiency in these operations.

This will include allowing individuals to plead guilty online and pay minor offences like transport fare fines, while also trying to curb legal jargon to help simplify processes, according to the joint paper.

“Already more than 12m pages of evidence have been put online, upgraded video link systems have been installed in 130 courts and Wi-Fi has been rolled out across the criminal court estate,” said the MoJ in a statement.

Truss said that expanding the pre-trial examinations project would allow children in particular to give evidence in a less intimidating environment. An estimated three quarters of the pilot trials undertaken were linked to sexual offences.

Truss argued that the expansion of the programme would help to meet aims of ensuring a more accessible legal system.

“We have the tools and the technology to cut unnecessary paperwork, to deliver swifter justice and to make the experience more straightforward,” she said.

The ministry also this week unveiled a consultation looking at further modernising how judges can perform their duties, while encouraging “talented and diverse candidates” to take up judicial roles where possible.

Citing the ubiquity of the internet in UK life and an explosion in new technologies, the joint paper noted that traditional ways of working were being up ended.

“To secure and enhance the global reputation of our justice system, therefore, we must respond to those changes radically and quickly – and the rapidly evolving needs and expectations of everyone who uses our courts and tribunals,” said the document.

Key reforms

Among the key recommendations included in the 'Transforming Our Justice System' joint paper is taking a digital by default approach to tribunal hearings and processes that will aim to make it easier to lodge claims and sharing of documents between relevant court bodies.

By 2020, the tribunal service will form part of a planned single justice system able to support virtual hearings and online decision making, while online dispute resolution will be tested in social security and child support hearings over the next 18 months.

Family court sessions, such as divorce proceedings, will be digitised as much as possible for uncontested cases to allow the majority of applications to be performed online.

According to the joint document, work will also continue over the planned digitisation of the criminal justice system, in partnership with police authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service, under a £270m valued transformation that is intended to be completed by 2019.

For civil courts, authorities hope to automate the entire process of key functions like resolving money claims by 2020, accounting for almost 80% of claims issues at county or the High Court.

“Under our new digital model, cases will be handled faster and in a more convenient way, improving the experience for everyone making and defending claims in the civil courts,” said the document.

“This new system will provide an online process to manage criminal cases from charge to conviction, linking the courts with others within the criminal justice system,” said the document. “It will also notify and update victims and witnesses of crime about the cases they’re involved in.”

National Audit Office (NAO) findings published in March looking at efficiency in the criminal justice system argued that although the management of cases has improved in the last five years, in general, the service is not delivering value for money.

The NAO also said the MoJ is constrained in introducing new technology in some areas by the nature of the courts estate, with particular challenges in adapting historic or listed buildings.

Moving to a "predominantly digital way of working" represents "significant cultural change" for many areas of the system, which are very paper-based and which "rely on manual entry onto ageing IT systems."

In February, a report by think tank Reform called for a need for clearer leadership and multi-agency collaboration between police and judicial authorities to successfully realise potential benefits from virtual courtroom technologies.

Related articles:

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Reform backs multi-agency leadership for digital courts overhaul

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