New frontiers of criminal justice: Rt Hon Sir Brian Leveson

11 March 2015

The work of the criminal justice system currently relies on a combination of long-standing manual processes and ageing computer systems that have evolved, piecemeal, over many decades.To increase the efficiency of the system, we undoubtedly need better, quicker and less costly ways of creating, filing and distributing documents, and easier and more flexible ways of enabling all those involved in the process to communicate effectively with one another. We need to reduce the number of hearings at which participants have to attend in person. It is also critical that we avoid duplication of work (such as “rekeying” the same information). Well-constructed IT has the potential to overcome most of these challenges.

I want to move to a default position where hearings – or at least certain categories of hearing – are conducted remotely. Until recently, in order to conduct a “hearing” of any sort, all those involved in the process had to be gathered together in the same place – usually a courtroom – in order for submissions to be made or evidence to be given, facilitating the making of a decision by the tribunal. People are comfortable with, and perhaps reluctant to depart from, its long familiarity. It may be difficult to envisage a fresh process that involves the judge conducting remote hearings. While there are competing arguments over when to undertake this type of hearing, in relation to pre-trial and case management hearings, the current process is inefficient and expensive. These hearings are essentially administrative in nature and it is unnecessary to gather the participantstogether in one room to deal with the matters that require resolution (save exceptionally when the interest of justice require it).

New technologies are available which will provide a reliable and high-quality means of dealing with many (though clearly not all) aspects of criminal cases without requiring the parties to travel to court. Remote hearings enable the judge, provided he or she has access to the relevant materials, to sit at any court centre or any venue with suitable IT facilities, and they will ease the pressure on courtrooms because the proceedings can be conducted from the judge’s chambers. The advocates will appear either from their chambers or offices – or from a court where they are appearing in other cases. Defendants, victims and witnesses will be able to participate via an audio or video link and observers (members of the public) could observe the proceedings in a similar way.

The potential uses of modern IT go beyond remote court hearings. At present, for a lawyer to confer with a client held in custody, it requires a visit to be booked, with limited time availability, and cost both for the lawyer (in travel, negotiating security and general waiting) and prison services (in dealing with the lawyer as a visitor, monitoring movement and supervising the visit). Appropriately locked-down computers linking lawyers and in-custody clients via internet-based video conferencing would allow instructions to be obtained from clients far more efficiently and with considerable saving of time and public money. More broadly, evidence is increasingly created, stored and presented in digital format. A range of different devices and platforms are being used, both wired and wireless when introducing evidence in court. Digital evidence is starting to be made available on mobile devices for jurors. Body-worn cameras are a further example of the significant scope that exists for transforming the way in which trials are conducted because of the rapidly emerging technological opportunities.

Rt Hon Sir Brian Leveson, President of the Queen’s Bench Division

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