Digitising the justice system
Earlier this month (15 September 2016), the Ministry of Justice announced a billion pound project to modernise our justice system.
In what the MoJ termed an “historic joint paper” from the Lord Chancellor (Liz Truss), Senior President of Tribunals (Sir Ernest Ryder) and Lord Chief Justice (Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd) outlined their joint vision in a a paper titled ‘Transforming Our Justice System’, which includes plans to scrap paper forms and ‘go digital’ in every court and tribunal in England and Wales.
The paper starts by setting out a vision based on core three principles; that the justice system is just, proportionate and accessible. These three principles are articulated as follows:
The decisions made by our judges and the outcomes of cases should be regarded as just by all parties – not least the vulnerable victims of crime. The judiciary must be supported by modern, transparent processes that are consistent, and allow for like cases to be treated alike. The judiciary and the legal profession should be drawn from the widest possible pool of talent which includes women, those from the BAME community and those from a socially disadvantaged background. In this way the judiciary will continue to command the confidence of the public and uphold the Rule of Law.
We must make sure that the justice system is proportionate in order to save people time, shrink their costs, and reduce the impact of legal proceedings on their lives. Justice delayed is justice denied. Low value cases or those of modest social significance should be dealt with quickly. Victims of crime and vulnerable witnesses should be supported by clear and effective processes. Unnecessary escalation of disputes should be emphatically discouraged and kept out of court wherever possible. The cost, speed and complexity should be proportionate to the scale and substance of the case.
Our justice system should be accessible. This means that the procedures and remedies should be available and intelligible to non-lawyers. People with disabilities should never feel excluded because they cannot attend a physical courtroom or handle documents or traditional procedures. Likewise, people who are not comfortable with new technology must always be supported.
Vulnerable victims and witnesses
One of the key proposals is that vulnerable victims and witnesses will no longer have to appear in court under new plans to roll out pre-trial evidence sessions. The cross-examinations will be recorded and played during the trial – sparing both victims and witnesses the stress of re-living traumatic events in open court.
The move follows three successful pilots which showed that victims felt less pressure with pre-trial evidence giving and witnesses were better able to recall events. Almost three quarters of the cases in the pilot programmes, run in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-upon-Thames Crown Courts, involved sexual offences.
The Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, said children in particular would benefit from being able to give evidence in a less intimidating environment.
A more straightforward, digital system
The joint paper also outlines plans to make the system more straightforward by reducing legal jargon and allowing people to plead guilty to some minor offences and pay fines online – beginning with transport fare dodging.
The paper states that over time, the work of the courts and tribunals will use online, virtual and traditional hearings as best meets the circumstances of the case.
As new technologies bed down, the MoJ anticipates that more and more cases or parts of cases will be carried out virtually or online although it acknowledges that in certain circumstances justice will require that parties, their advisers and judges conduct hearings in physical courtrooms.
The paper signals two significant developments.
The first is the aim for all cases to be started online, whether or not they are scheduled for the traditional system or for online resolution.
The second is that the completion of some cases will take place entirely online, which will be much more convenient for everyone involved. Suitable cases – initially lower value debt and damages claims and appeals to the Social Security and Child Support Tribunal – will be able to be managed through affordable and simple online services, specifically designed to meet user needs.
There will also be a new, highly simplified procedural code. An online form will guide people through their application and the progress of their case. This new approach will be designed to promote more conciliatory approaches to dispute resolution, and to be understandable to non-lawyers, helping ordinary people resolve their issues in a low-key way, without needing expensive legal representation to help them understand what to do.
Of course, part of the driver for these reforms is for the justice system to be cheaper to run. The main method of achieving these savings is by closing court buildings:
We currently have over 400 court and tribunal buildings, many of them old, small, inefficient, yet expensive to maintain. In 2014-15, around half (48%) of courts and tribunals were used for less than half of the time. Many will be closed over the next four years to fund investment in fewer, more modern buildings that can better serve people’s needs.
Impact on sentencers and lawyers
In a section which appears to anticipate some resistance, the paper acknowledges that the reforms will have a major impact on judges, magistrates and lawyers:
It will call for some adaptability and a willingness to embrace new technology… We are also looking at how we can enable more flexible deployment of the judiciary across the different jurisdictions of the courts and tribunals… For lawyers especially, innovation will be invaluable: to find new ways of delivering services, of simplifying working practices, of focusing more on meeting the needs of all their clients, from defendants to families and civil claimants.
Given Justice Secretary Liz Truss history as a strong proponent of legal aid cuts, it will be interesting to see if she can secure the co-operation of sentencers and lawyers in these reforms.