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June 27, 2016
Technology in the courtroom
By: Louise Seymour

Digital Justice is part of the ‘Future of Public Services series from the UK Government think-tank ‘Reform’ and Accenture, looking at the obstacles, benefits and solutions to the use of technology in public services and what it means for UK citizens. The report focuses on how better use of technology in the justice system can reduce costs and improve efficiency.

With its arcane language, seventeenth-century wigs and formal rituals, the practices of British courts don’t appear to have evolved much since John Mortimer’s laconic character Horatio Rumpole was challenging impertinent prosecution barristers at the Old Bailey.

Yet since 1985, when Lord Hailsham detailed reducing court delays as a priority in his Civil Justice Review, there have been calls for courts to do more to streamline processes and improve efficiency. Even the Magna Carta aspired to a system whereby every citizen received justice ‘without delay’.

The use of technology to reduce costs and improve the speed and efficiency of the court system is a key priority for the Government. It also has the potential to improve the delivery of justice itself.

A ‘virtual court’ video link between defendants in police custody and a court room, could reduce the time between custody and first hearing from hours to minutes.

Despite these calls and the clear demand for improved use of technology, the court system remains cumbersome and the use of technology patchy. Victims of crime now wait longer for cases to complete than when the Coalition came to power. In magistrates’ courts, the average duration has nearly reached five months; up 7 per cent since 2011. There are also significant regional variations; courts in the Midlands are 28 per cent less efficient than those in the North East.

A new report, Digital Justice, co-authored by the UK Government think-tank ‘Reform’ and Accenture makes the powerful case that there is a great opportunity to do a lot better in this area by using technology more effectively. Of course, there is resistance from jury’s and judges who argue the need to see defendants and most witnesses face-to-face to really get the measure of a case, however a recent pilot in Sussex showed just how significant the benefits of a new approach could be.

Sussex Pilot: A model for the future of digital justice?

“At first there was caution, but now the project is generating enthusiasm about the benefits,” says Katy Bourne, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex, about a new £1.1 million pilot project to enhance the use of technology by courts across London, Surrey, Kent and Sussex.

The project includes new technology to enable remand hearings and summary trials to be held remotely, with live links to victims, witnesses and police officers. The large area involved – London, Surry, Kent and Sussex – provides scale for promoting the adoption of video technology. The leadership of a central influential ‘champion’ in the form of Katy Bourne, Police and Crime Commissioner, – is key to success of the programme, which aims to…

  • Provide a service for 14,000 users per working day.

  • Reduce the average stay in custody for defendants by five

  • Release 18 percent of the magistrates’ court estate.

  • Deliver a 43 percent reduction in ineffective trials.

  • Garner net savings across all agencies in the region of £27 million.

  • Provide scale for success: just a 50 per cent uptake of virtual-remand courts would still see net savings of roughly £10 million.

The four Keys to the Success of Digital Justice

  1. Scale is vital. A pilot of ‘video-enabled justice’ undertaken in Camberwell in 2009 saw defendants’ initial court hearings carried out via video-link. Yet violent offenders, who are the most expensive to transport, were excluded from the trial. This needs to be resolved if savings are going to be made, because re-trial and case-management hearings for these cases are amongst the most expensive in the system. Technology needs to be used widely and as part of the ‘day-to-day’ work of the courts if initial investment is to reap benefits.

  2. Processes and skills need to be up to the task. In the Camberwell pilot all the appearance slots for the ‘virtual court’ were manually-administered, rigid 15-minute hearings, which contributed to a low 64 percent take-up. Technology needs to be used better, and administered by staff with the skills to effectively brief participants.

  3. Leaders of our police, judiciary and prosecutors need to embrace technology.Traditionally – and rightly – fiercely independent, all the parties in our justice system need to work harder and more collaboratively to speed the adoption of new technology. This will improve the speed of justice, reduce the number of cases that fail and improve the experiences of witnesses, jurors, defendants and victims.

  4. Shared benefits approach. A perennial problem for the public sector is that investment by one partner is required to benefit another. Reducing the amount of time police officers spend in court, thanks to live courtroom video-links, has clear efficiency benefits for the police, but it depends on an efficient court scheduling service. The links themselves depend on investment in technology, skills and improved practices from both the police AND the courts.

Ultimately, the efficient and effective administration of justice is perhaps the most vital component of a citizen’s support for the state. Rumpole may have been a grumbling curmudgeon at times, but his passion for justice and fairness would probably have seen him wanting more courts to get online.

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