Digital court services “already starting to deliver”

Frazer: Every penny raised will be ploughed back in

The courts service is already seeing benefits from the early stages of the digital delivery of justice, it said yesterday as it outlined its plans for further rationalisation of the physical court estate.

The proposals included the potential closure of eight courts, including Blackfriars Crown Court, which was meant to be one of venues for the flexible operating hours pilot.

The joint consultation paper from the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) revealed that 80,000 online pleas were made last year for low-level motoring offences.

Meanwhile, 10% of applications going through the online divorce system are being rejected because of mistakes, compared to 40% of paper application forms – “and we hope to reduce this further as the service develops”, the paper said.

Similarly, before the introduction of the system to help people calculate court fees, some 75% of paper forms were rejected. It is 20% online and these are typically the result of a genuine eligibility issue, rather than a failure to fill the form in right.

The consultation said HMCTS was looking to expand the use of telephone and video hearings. A ‘video-enabled justice’ project in Sussex, London and the South East will look to develop virtual hearings for suitable remand cases.

This will mean defendants will not need to be transported to court for a five-minute hearing, and also save police officers and witnesses waiting time.

“As well as building on existing technology, we are designing a ‘virtual hearing’ capability. In a virtual hearing all participants log into a video call from their computer using a standard web browser.

“We have been carrying out testing with members of the public, legal professionals, members of the judiciary and colleagues from other government departments. We undertook further technical testing in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber in October 2017.

“We will continue to test and develop virtual hearings during 2018 – starting with straightforward case management hearings, which involve only professional attendees dealing with defined issues. This will develop our understanding of how virtual hearings work, what they can offer and where they are likely to be appropriate – and, of course, where they are not.”

The consultation stressed, however, that decisions as to what should be done virtually will be for the judiciary – the government would not mandate virtual hearings.

“We also recognise that hearings will still be required in many cases to deliver justice. Nevertheless, with better deployment of technology (which already exists) there is much more that can be done to reduce the requirement to attend a hearing in person.”

Other initiatives being tested include online probate applications, the common platform – a digital system to support working between agencies in the criminal justice system – and automated track case management, currently being used for Transport for London,

If the latest proposals to close physical courts go through, there will be 339 operational court and tribunal buildings providing face-to-face services, down from 605 just a few years ago.

But the government said that 248 of these were within five miles, 286 within 10 miles, and 310 within 15 miles of another court or tribunal location.

New justice minister Lucy Frazer, a former barrister, said: “As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for court buildings and assess whether some are still necessary to provide effective access to justice.

“Where physical courts are to close, every penny raised will be put back into funding changes which will make justice easier to access for all at the same time as offering protections for the most vulnerable.”

The MoJ said £114.7m has been raised so far from building sales.

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