Digital courts: evidence for the prosecution

18 February 2016

Governments since at least the 1980s have stressed the need for judicial speed. Victims and witnesses want a proximate relationship between crime and punishment. With the Government still battling the deficit, the expense entailed by court delays is not welcome. However the most significant reason to value swift justice is that outcomes are affected by duration.  The longer cases drag on, the more likely they are to collapse.

Despite this consensus, the UK courts system remains archaic and cumbersome. 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.

Using technology has long been viewed as a solution to this issue, with Lord Leveson’s 2015 review of efficiency in criminal proceedings the most recent exponent of ‘virtual courts’. By establishing a video link between victims, witnesses, defendants and judges, virtual courts can avoid the multiple layers of expense built into face-to-face hearings. Transportation cost, police officer hours spent waiting to give evidence and the expense of running court custody facilities – all these could be reduced through digitisation.

To date, however, the case for video enabled justice (VEJ) has not held in practice. A 2009 trial in Camberwell concluded that even under the most optimistic assumptions, efficiency gains would not outweigh the initial cost of investment.  This does not, however, mean VEJ itself is flawed. A number of lessons emerged from the pilot. Scale is crucial to the financial case for reform, but without automated scheduling software, the requisite volumes will not be delivered. Leadership within, and cooperation between, the judiciary, police and prosecution services is also crucial. With the costs and benefits of digital courts falling unevenly across budgets, the key is to align interests through coordinated action.

A new digital courts blueprint in the South East has the potential to address these lessons. The local police forces of London, Surrey, Kent and Sussex have partnered with national agencies and Accenture to draw up plans for a pilot that could deliver the volumes required to make virtual courts financially viable.  The large geographical area will be matched by a broader remit than that seen in Camberwell, with remand hearings and summary trials also brought within the scope of digital courts.

Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex Katy Bourne has provided the crucial leadership for such an ambitious project. As chair of the local Criminal Justice Board, she has been able to build a business case that will deliver savings across the board. The scope of the partnership is also reflected in its focus on getting the technology right. Up to 14,000 actors are expected on their digital courts scheduling service each day, with plans to create a tier of court employees responsible for the technology in trail.

As Reform’s paper details today, the partnership estimates virtual courts could reduce the average stay in custody for defendants by five hours, release 18 per cent of the magistrates’ court estate, and deliver a 43 per cent reduction in ineffective trials. If all goes to plan, the net savings across all agencies will be in the region of £27 million each year. These gains, however, might just be the tip of the iceberg. Expanding the model nationwide and including crown, commercial and coronial courts could see efficiencies reach hundreds of thousands of pounds annually. More significantly, creating a more convenient and rapid judicial system is what victims, witnesses and defendants want. As in so many other areas of public service reform, improving outcomes can also deliver savings.

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