The Criminal Justice System and Technology



Twenty years ago the legal system saw the first signs of laptops and mobile phones. Twenty years on we now have paperless trials, e-disclosure, e-filing and e-document management. As technology advances, we are now progressing towards empty witness boxes and virtual Court rooms filled with televisions. We have already seen the introduction of remote interpreters at the Police Station and now police officers are regularly appearing via video link from the Police Station in Trials.

Internal video links within the Court have been available for many years for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses. However, the Courts are increasingly using external video links to produce defendants and facilitate witnesses giving evidence remotely.

In October 2013 Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas announced the use of video calling software such as Skype and Face Time to allow criminal defendants to appear in Court from home. He stated that the use of video links in hearings before the Crown Court would slash the costs of bringing a case to Court. At the time critics said defendants should not be allowed to appear “from the comfort of their own home” while others said it would demean the dignity of the Court.

The Lord Chief Justice went further to suggest that the use of Consulting lawyers outside London using Skype or other online services would drive down the high costs of legal bills in the capital and make justice more accessible. He stated “In the age of the internet, of teleconferences, Skype and Facetime, there is no reason why a litigant should not or could not properly instruct a lawyer from outside London to work for them at a cost significantly less than in London but with equal quality experience.”

Twelve months on at Croydon Crown Court HHJ John Tanzer appeared via Skype in a case where a teacher was acquitted of sexual offences.  The Judge who had to depart Court to attend official business appeared before the Court on large screens over a secure Wi-Fi connection.

The Judge appeared when the jury had reached a verdict on the remaining counts and then he released the defendant. This was the first time that a Judge has appeared by Skype at a Court hearing and is an illustration of how our legal system is using modern technology to become more efficient.

However, in the same week Hull’s most senior Judge Jeremy Richardson QC saw red when he was interrupted by a computerised voice informing him his courtroom video link would “end in two minutes”. The Court had been in session for 20 minutes in legal debate when a loud computerised voice interrupted proceedings, stating: “This conference is due to end in two minutes.” Judge Richardson, who was visibly angry, said: “I am not having this court controlled by some disembodied voice that comes through the system. It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd “I am not having time limits put on hearings.”Legal arguments continued, before the voice stated: “Your conference is now over. Goodbye.”

The hearing above had to be adjourned to another day, clearly defying the main objective of appearing via video link to save money.

So in a single week we can see clearly two examples of the legal system coming into the 21st century. Unfortunately the second example illustrates the pitfalls in using technology in the Court room. It is seen all too often that delays are caused by poor management of new systems.

If the criminal justice system is serious about adopting modern technology to reduce cost then all parties have to be using the same system. Historically Chief Constables have been able to act independently of each other which has led to different Police forces using different computer systems to each other. This lack of cohesion is exacerbated because the Crown Prosecution Service has a different system as does the Court which means that none of them can effectively communicate with each other. Until the government decides to invest in this technology then it is difficult to see how it can be harnessed to improve efficiency in the criminal justice system.

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