Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals in England and Wales. In collaboration with the Senior Judiciary and the MOJ, HMCTS is investing £1bn to reform the courts and tribunal system.
Included in the reform programme is a proposal for an ‘online plea and allocation’ process, to enable defendants, through their legal representative, to indicate a plea online before appearing in court. A further proposal would enable’ indictable only’ cases, (i.e. cases that can be heard only in the Crown Court), to be sent straight to the Crown Court.
The ‘Case Progression Project’ aims at ensuring that all participants in a case will take the steps necessary to achieve an effective trial or sentencing hearing in either the Magistrates’ or Crown Court. These steps would take place before the hearing by online, audio and video channels, in addition to existing processes in court.
The projects will build on the increasing use of technology already being widely used in the criminal courts. It is anticipated that that all remand hearings would be by video link, including the first hearing, to reduce the amount of time defendants are held in custody without a judicial decision. It is also intended to improve processes around those appearing by video link from police stations, including improving access to early legal advice. Eventually, all suitable hearings could be held entirely in this way, with the option of the defendant and witnesses appearing by video-link, subject to judicial approval.
The ‘Youth Project’ seeks to address the needs of children and young people to ensure that they are not subject to processes suitable for adults. It will support the wider aims of the Youth Justice System to ensure access to justice, prevent re-offending and contribute to maintaining the safety and well- being of children and young people passing through the system.
All these projects will be underpinned by the digital Common Platform, a shared system between the police, HMCTS and CPS and accessible by participants across the criminal justice system.
Joan Hughes, Duty Solicitor with the Cheltenham PDS attended an HMCTS Reform Event recently, which sought to enable participants to increase their knowledge and understanding of the proposed reforms, and to provide feedback. Such ambitious reforms cannot take place all at once and need discussion, debate, involvement and evaluation.
Wi-Fi has been installed in 98% of courts and tribunals. HMCTS has raised £122m from the sale of unused court buildings, all of which is being reinvested into modernising the service so that people can have access to justice more easily.
In the words of the then Lord Chancellor, The Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals when they launched the programme in 2016 ‘The reforms will combine our respected traditions with the enabling power of technology. The vision is to modernise and upgrade our justice system so that it works even better for everyone, from judges and legal professionals to witnesses litigants and the vulnerable victims of crime. When they have to engage with the system we want everyone to have available to them the finest justice system in the world’