Master of the rolls Lord Neuberger has backed the introduction of more electronic disclosure in court but stopped short of advocating ‘virtual trials’.
Speaking at the high sheriff’s lecture in Leeds last week, Neuberger said the legal profession was facing change on a scale not seen since the Victorian era.
He raised the intriguing possibility that trials could operate without courts at all, although he noted there remains a strong argument for physical trials.
Neuberger said: ‘Does the brave new world point to virtual courts? Might we see the judge in his room - perhaps at home even - hearing cases via the internet?
‘Might we have witnesses in one city cross-examined by counsel, who is in her chambers in another city, while the parties are in a third city and the judge is somewhere else entirely - all brought together by Skype or some equivalent system?
‘While the possibility of this is undoubtedly not too far away in the future, it is something which is likely to be a step too far.’
Neuberger argued that over time the incidence of paper-based evidence is bound to decrease as e-disclosure takes hold of traditional court proceedings and changes the way courts operate.
If the current set-up of court operations does not lend itself to dealing with electronic records, said Neuberger, it will be the law that will have to adapt to the demands of technology.
‘We may have to reconsider the law and practice relating to disclosure.
'Well-established as it is, having existed for centuries, it may have to be radically changed to render litigation in the electronic age feasible.
‘Just as disclosure is going electronic, so should much of the evidence in court.
‘Evidence which is not from live witnesses is currently on paper in its original or processed form, but such evidence will more and more become electronic. Again this points to the need to recalibrate our court infrastructure.’
Neuberger stated his belief in the ‘fundamental rights’ of the citizen to obtain access to justice in spite of the economic conditions of the country.
And he urged the government to think more creatively about what to do with redundant court and back-room buildings.
‘Some could be used to house legal advice centres, to house pro bono litigation and advocacy services - thus reducing the capital outlay for such organisations, and possibly even increasing the number of such centres.
‘In an age where Citizens’ Advice and advice centres are facing resource pressure, such a development could only be for the good.
‘Some redundant rooms could be used to house law libraries, both virtual and traditional, which would be open to the public, and particularly to litigants.’