Fully video courtrooms will be piloted with members of the public for the first time, the government has announced, kicking off with tax appeals this spring.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service says video hearings will save people time and money spent travelling to court and waiting. People with health problems that make it difficult for them to attend court, will also benefit, the announcement said.
Participants will need a computer and a webcam so they can log in from a location of their choice. The judge will sit in a courtroom.
HMCTS says it is 'working closely with the judiciary to ensure the majesty of a physical courtroom will be upheld'. The judge will decide whether to hold a video hearing. Private conversations will be possible before the hearing begins. The hearing format and process will remain the same.
The Gazette has been told that the 'small scale' pilot will hold up to 24 cases. Two members of the judiciary will hear any pilot case. The hearings will take about one-and-a-half hours. Appropriate hearings will considered from across England.
Justice minister Lucy Frazer said today: 'We are spending £1bn on transforming and modernising the justice system. Video hearings have the potential to improve access to justice and speed up cases. This pilot will provide important information - together with an increasing body of evidence from other countries - to drive innovation to make the wider system quicker, smarter and much more user-friendly.'
HMCTS says video technology is already used in criminal courts to allow some victims and witnesses to give evidence without coming face-to-face with the accused. They cite a 97-year-old victim of an aggravated burglary and a witness to a gang murder as examples.
Former magistrate Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice, which campaigns for a fair and open justice system, told the Gazette that research on video hearings for defendants and immigration detainees suggests that being on video leads to worse outcomes, including more imprisonment and a greater number of decisions to deny bail.
A survey conducted by the charity last year showed that over half of respondents thought appearing on video made it more difficult for defendants to understand what was going on in their hearings and to participate. Nearly three-quarters said defendants who had no legal representation were disadvantaged by appearing on video.
Gibbs said today: 'I hope HMCTS will do a full evaluation of outcomes in this pilot so we know whether virtual hearings help or hinder access to justice.'
The Law Society said people lodging tax appeals are likely to be well educated, and not financially or technologically excluded. The cases are also likely to be reasonably straightforward. Joe Egan, president, said: 'This makes these cases a good environment to test out the principles and technology for holding fully virtual hearings. However, it must be remembered that more complex cases and more vulnerable participants are likely to give rise to extra challenges that may not be addressed in this pilot.
'We look forward to learning with HMCTS the lessons to be drawn from the pilot, and to discussing with them the issues that will need to be considered before rolling out this technology further.'