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Courting change

Courting change

As far as government strategies go, the Digital Strategy for Justice in Scotland published in August is fairly light at 11 pages. It may be light on content, but it is loaded in consequence. That much was acknowledged by Kenny MacAskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, who, when asked by Holyrood magazine about his ambitions for the year ahead, referred to said strategy as being “of most significant potential impact” in terms of changes being pursued.

Three objectives have been outlined. The first is to allow people and business to access the right information at the right time; this ties into development of the mygovscot platform, the purpose of which is to connect people across the country to devolved public services. The intention behind it is to allow civil litigants, tribunal users and victims of crime to track their case via this portal within three years.

The second is better use of data, particularly plans to link with other sectors such as health, social care and education, which could allow public spending decisions to be taken on the basis of informed analysis.

However, perhaps it is the third objective that figures between these two, fully digitised justice systems that promises the biggest wholesale change for those interacting with the justice system on a day-to-day basis. Digital recording of evidence, reports, decisions and judgments, including submission of pleadings, will be provided. Police Scotland, for instance, is currently working with Scottish Court Service staff on the electronic exchange of warrants. Live video conferencing TV links will become commonplace, allowing agents to speak with clients without physically meeting them and court diets will go ahead with evidence given remotely.

“Our experience of teething problems with the video links in the High Court has made it clear that the best results come only when the equipment is of sufficiently high quality,” Court of Session judge Lady Dorrian pointed out soon after the strategy was published.

Wi-fi has been promised in all court buildings by the end of 2016, while a digital evidence vault will allow the storage of documents, audio, pictures and video content. Police Scotland, meanwhile, has commissioned a full business case to determine the specific requirements of body-worn cameras, after Sir Stephen House told Holyrood this time last year that he’d like to see every officer in the country given one. It is a “potentially powerful source of real-time evidence” that the justice system “should look to make full use of it when the technologies are proved”, Lady Dorrian suggested.

Progress on many of these developments is much the same whether one resides north or south of the border. Under the Criminal Justice System Digital Business Model unveiled by the UK Government’s Criminal Justice Minister, Damian Green, in April, the intention is to equip police to capture witnesses and victims’ statements electronically on their mobile device or a body-worn camera at the scene of a crime, while every magistrates court will be fitted with new digital presentation facilities.

While these developments UK-wide are focused specifically on the way in which courts operate, how they are seen to operate will be equally telling. TV cameras recorded proceedings in the Court of Appeal, one of the highest courts in England and Wales, for the first time last October. The current policy on recording and broadcasting proceedings in courts across Scotland is being considered now after Lord President Gill announced a review in October 2012.

“I think that there is a strong case for saying that they (the courts) should be televised: that is merely the modern extension of enabling the public to enter the courts physically,” Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, the president of the Supreme Court, told the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club a week after the Scottish strategy was published. “Of course, concerns about intimidation of witnesses and juries, and about witnesses and lawyers playing to the gallery have to be addressed, but they do not apply to appeals. In the UK, most of the Supreme Court hearings are filmed and streamed, and the Court of Appeal is taking steps in that direction too. The OJ Simpson trial may have been a lesson in how not to do it, but I have found the filming of the Oscar Pistorius trial impressive.”

Responses to the consultation here at home, which closed at the end of January, are still being analysed, with the review group, chaired by Lady Dorrian, subsequently having to produce guidance that the Lord President will then have the option to approve or not.

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