As the Government presses ahead with plans for on-line and virtual hearings, the Bar Council has warned that the quality and the reputation of our system of justice must not suffer.
Chairman of the Bar, Andrew Langdon QC said: “Appropriate safeguards must be put in place to ensure that the quality of justice and the high regard in which our system is held are not undermined.
“Technology has the potential to enhance our system of justice and to provide greater convenience to some court users. If used correctly, it can also save unnecessary expenditure. But we must ensure that convenience and cost do not override other important considerations.
“Virtual hearings in criminal cases should remain the exception rather than the norm. Criminal proceedings are generally better conducted when the participants are together in one place. It is essential that there is no diminution in the quality of open justice.
“As to some of the envisaged on-line procedures, defendants must be offered a genuine choice. They must also be made aware of their right to consult a lawyer.
“Inviting defendants to use an on-line procedure to indicate a plea, or to opt for a summary trial instead of a Crown Court jury trial, risks trivialising potentially serious consequences for those accused of committing offences.
“Although certain witnesses benefit from being able to give evidence by way of a remote link to court or by way of pre-recorded testimony, generally speaking, the physical presence of victims, witnesses, juries, defendants, judges, lawyers and the public, is fundamental to our innate sense of how justice should be delivered.”
In a briefing to MPs ahead of the Second Reading of the Prisons and Courts Bill, the Bar Council also warned that:
- Issuing convictions online should be limited to low level offences such as those which attract a Fixed Penalty Notice.
- The Secretary of State should not have the power – without wide consultation – to determine those offences for which on-line convictions can be secured.
- Reforms to the roles and qualifications expected of HMCTS staff who will be authorised to take on more of the case management functions of a court or tribunal lack clarity. Parliament has not been given enough detail for them adequately to be scrutinised.
The Bar Council’s parliamentary briefing on the Prisons and Courts Bill is availablehere.