Judges and lawyers can be reassured that holding Crown Court hearings and trials remotely makes no difference to the outcome, a major analysis has concluded.
There are few “meaningful differences” in either the efficiency or effectiveness of hearings – including rates of convictions, acquittals or not-guilty verdicts.
The Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) statistical analysis encompassed Crown Court hearings between January 2020 to March 2022 and looked at the impact of remote hearings – defined as one where any participant was remote – on effectiveness (the outcomes for defendants) and efficiency (the duration of hearings and cases).
These were matched with a similar group of in-person hearings or cases, although researchers said there was a possibility of selection bias in which cases were held remotely, despite efforts to control for it.
The analysis found no differences in the rates of guilty pleas (52%) and not-guilty pleas (12%) at or before the plea hearing.
There were statistically significant – although not large – differences in the proportion of guilty pleas entered after a remote plea hearing and in dropped cases.
Where the defendant had pleaded guilty, there were no statistically significant differences in convictions, acquittals or not-guilty verdicts – but those in remote hearings were a little less likely to receive a discharge for the least serious offences.
“This suggests that remote hearings have no impact on wider outcomes of justice,” the MoJ said.
“These findings may be reassuring to those members of judiciary who are concerned over unintended consequences of opting for a remote hearing, or to those defendants or legal practitioners who are wary of remote hearings.”
Remote hearings were generally 20% quicker than in-person hearings (23.6 minutes against 29.5 minutes), even though a third of listing officers surveyed for the research said they actually listed remote hearings for a longer time than in-person hearings.
For trials, remote trials were also six minutes quicker but, at four hours and 15 minutes, this made little difference.
MoJ researchers said they could not “fully answer whether individual remote hearings are more efficient than comparable in-person hearings”.
Additional time may be required for setting up remote hearings, or to deal with technical difficulties, limiting any efficiency benefits, they observed.
Aggregated over the whole remote hearing group, the six-minute savings totalled 1,076 hours or over 200 typical court sitting days less of court time per month. But this was spread over 70 court centres and different days.
The MoJ acknowledged that “it may be difficult to utilise any small reductions in individual hearing durations in real-world court setting, where both remote and in-person hearings take place.”
At the same time, “knowledge of remote hearings being on average shorter than matched in-person hearings may assist in more efficient running of Crown Courts”.
The MoJ said other research suggested that remote hearings could have benefits for some court users.
“Criminal legal aid practitioners attending MoJ focus groups [for the 2021 criminal legal aid review] have said remote hearings can help practitioners to work more efficiently, more flexibly and help manage a better work-life balance due to less travel and waiting times.
“They also said this could benefit defendants, as the additional time freed could improve the defendants access to solicitors and barristers. Similar sentiments have also been expressed by professional participants in other recent research reports on remote hearings.”
But the views of other court users and professionals were more mixed. One study found some professional users surveyed, particularly judges, reporting that remote hearings were more intensive and have an impact on their health and wellbeing.
Meanwhile, defendants at in-person hearings – especially those from vulnerable groups – were more likely to consider communication with their legal representative to be good. This accorded with the sentiments of parents surveyed in the family courts.