Interested members of the public will be able to view ‘virtual’ court hearings from purpose-built booths in court buildings, the Prisons and Courts Bill states. The proposal is an attempt to counter threats to open justice by a courts system increasingly operating digitally. Court listings and case results will also be published online, a factsheet published by the Ministry of Justice says.

As expected, the bill will give effect to proposals for digital justice set out in the Transforming our justice system strategy. These include:

- ‘Automatic online convictions with statutory standard penalty’ for some criminal offences. Under this procedure, offenders charged with certain non-custodial offences such as evading transport fares will be able to plead guilty online, accept a conviction, be issued a penalty and pay that penalty there and then;

- Online court. The bill provides for digital services to enable businesses to issue and pursue claims quickly. ‘This will give them vital confidence to do business here, and will enable our world leading justice system to remain the international destination of choice for dispute resolution,’ the ministry said; and 

- Virtual hearings. These will be extended to allow victims of crime to take part without having to meet the accused face to face. ‘They will also enable many hearings, such as bail applications, to be resolved via video or telephone conferencing.’

A consultation on the government’s transforming justice plans revealed fears that the move online would threaten the principle of open justice. Responding earlier this month, the MoJ said: ‘We are currently developing a solution which will ensure that the principle of open justice is maintained as we move to digital channels.’

The idea of ‘public viewing centres’ was proposed by Lord Justice Fulford at a lecture in the Law Society last November. Today’s Ministry of Justice announcements state: ‘We will put booths in court buildings to allow the public to view virtual hearings as they take place from anywhere in England and Wales. Court listings and case results will also be published online.’ 

No further details were immediately available.