The prospect of criminal hearings held routinely by video in ‘virtual courtrooms’ has come a step closer with the publication of a study by the president of the Queen’s Bench Division which aims to streamline the criminal justice system to cut costs. 

Sir Brian Leveson’s review of efficiency in criminal proceedings, commissioned by the lord chief justice in February last year alongside the Jeffrey review into criminal advocacy, contends that criminal courts are ‘lagging significantly’ behind the business world in their use of IT and videoconferencing. 

Leveson says that it is time to introduce virtual hearings by email and video ‘on a more organised basis’. In such hearings, defendants, victims and witnesses ‘will be able to participate via an audio or video link’.

However, he acknowledges ‘for the purposes of this review’ that hearings where imprisonment is a possibility will continue to take place in conventional courtrooms.

Other proposals in the review include better ‘case ownership’ and extended opening hours in magistrates’ courts.

Among proposals for the Crown court, Leveson recommends that ‘consideration be given to specifically and unambiguously extending the power of the court to prevent repetitious or otherwise unnecessary evidence and to control prolix, irrelevant or oppressive questioning of witnesses’. 

Elsewhere, the review renews calls to cut the number of cases being committed unnecessarily to the Crown court.

Among the review’s recommendations for better case ownership are that:

  • In each case, one person in the police, CPS and the defence must be ‘responsible for the conduct of the case’. 
  • The Criminal Procedure Rules ‘place a duty of direct engagement’ between identified case-owners and ‘make it clear that the parties are under a duty to engage at the first available opportunity’. 

Leveson says that a pre-requisite for virtual hearings is ‘the equipment must be reliable and the audio and visual quality should be of a high standard’. He also recognises that the system will be dependent on the ability of prisons to provide ‘sufficient video booths’.  

Virtual hearings could be made available online for members of the public to view, he suggests. 

Leveson’s review is likely to be seized on by a Ministry of Justice contemplating a further round of budget cuts in the next parliament. 

However Leveson stresses that the savings that could be achieved through his proposals are uncosted. ‘Neither has it been possible to identify the extent to which… any proposed change will set to provide a better rate of remuneration for those conducting publicly funded criminal work’.

However he notes: ‘It remains essential that we retain high-quality lawyers to carry out publicly funded work.’

Law Society president Andrew Caplen welcomed the report, adding that many of its recommendations are consistent with members' views that formed the basis of the Society’s submissions.

But he added: 'While these changes should lead to significant savings to the public purse in the medium-term from all parts of the criminal justice system, there is no evidence that the proposed efficiencies - if achieved - will result in savings that would justify the further proposed cut in legal aid rates. All stakeholders will need to make changes to ensure these improvements happen. Continuing with the proposed second legal aid fee cut will inhibit the defence community's ability to make such changes, and may put at risk the savings for all parties in the system.'

The recommendations endorsed by the Society include:

  • Ensuring case ownership by one responsible person for the police, the defence and, importantly, the Crown Prosecution Service.
  • The duty of direct engagement, which enables meaningful communication between the parties in advance of hearings.
  • Audio and video technology for appropriate hearings - instead of expensive attendances at court.
  • Video conferencing between remand prisoners and their lawyers.
  • Moving towards single fixed listings of trials.  

The Society also supports the principles that underpin the ‘Transforming Summary Justice’ initiative and agrees that transitional funding should be available to the CPS and HMCTS.

Caplen concluded: 'We support the idea behind a national Guilty Plea Scheme but we are concerned that the timing of the proposed preliminary hearing will not allow for effective case management at that stage. We do not agree that jury trial should be restricted.'