Vulnerable victims and witnesses will no longer have to appear in court to give evidence and fare dodgers will be able to plead guilty and pay fines online under new reforms.
The radical changes to court procedures in England and Wales are part of a £1bn programme to modernise the courts announced jointly by the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the senior president of tribunals, Sir Ernest Ryder, and the new justice secretary, Elizabeth Truss, on Thursday.
There have already been successful pilot programmes at Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston upon Thames crown courts that allow victims and witnesses to prerecord their cross-examinations and avoid the trauma of a live hearing. This will allow them to opt out of giving their evidence in court.
Victims are said to have felt less under pressure in giving their accounts and witnesses were better able to recall events. Many of the cases in the pilot programme involved sexual offences. Their cross-examinations were shown to juries during the trial.
The next category of minor offences to be transferred to online justice are those relating to transport fare dodging. Only those cases where people plead guilty will be dealt with online. Fines will be levied through the MoJ website.
Defendants will be able to log on to an online system to see the evidence against them before entering a plea. If they plead guilty, they can opt in to an online system that allows them to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine.
It will not be the first set of offences to be transferred online. One legal system, the traffic penalty tribunal (TPT), already deals with 25,000 appeals about minor driving and parking offences online a year. It is staffed by 30 part-time adjudicators and enables complainants to upload video, voice and picture evidence.
The TPT’s pioneering service is also being adopted in a pilot programme by the social entitlement chamber, which deals with benefit disputes.
Transferring justice online raises questions about whether and how the names of those who plead guilty will be published. If cases had been heard in front of a magistrate, they would have been open for the media to report on the hearing.
The justice secretary, Elizabeth Truss, said children in particular would benefit from being able to give cross-examination evidence outside court in a less intimidating environment.
Truss said: “We want a justice system that works for everyone. That means creating a system that is just, efficient and simple. We have the tools and the technology to cut unnecessary paperwork, to deliver swifter justice and to make the experience more straightforward.
“Most importantly these reforms will allow us to better protect victims and witnesses who can find the experience of reliving a traumatic event in court incredibly stressful.”
More than 12m pages of evidence have been put online and video-link systems have been installed in 130 crown courts.
The MoJ will publish a joint “vision paper” on Thursday, entitled Transforming Our Justice System, that will include plans to scrap paper forms and “go digital” in every court and tribunal in England and Wales. It will also promise to scrap complex legal jargon in an attempt to simplify court proceedings.
The MoJ is investing £700m to reform and modernise the courts and tribunal system. This is in addition to £270m being made available to develop a fully connected criminal courtroom by 2020.
Digital in-court presentation equipment has been introduced in the crown and magistrates courts to allow the presentation of digital data, such as CCTV, direct from parties’ laptops. Upgraded video-link systems have been introduced to 130 crown, magistrates and civil courts.
Mobile video-link vans that can be deployed to provide a more flexible platform for video-links in the prison, court and tribunal estates are also being used.
A van stationed at HMP Thameside in south-east London supports video-link hearings at Thames magistrates and Snaresbrook crown court.