UK to test court hearings over the Net

Plans to get the British criminal justice system online took another step forward today with the announcement of a pilot scheme in Manchester. Starting from the summer, Manchester Crown Court will be testing a system that enables procedural hearings to be conducted over the Internet rather than in the courtroom.

At the moment a "plea and directions hearing" is held before a given trial. This is conducted to determine how the defendant will plead and which court - for example, Crown or magistrates - is most suited to hear the trial. Traditionally, the hearing relies on oral submissions, but the new scheme enables barristers for both sides to submit detailed arguments and paperwork through a secure Web site.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The benefit lies in time savings and consistency of approach. The pilot will run for one year. It will then be evaluated for cost savings with a view to further roll out."

The potential cost savings are significant given that the average cost of keeping a courtroom open for a day is £9,000 (14,300 euros). While straightforward hearings can take just 15 minutes to complete, more complex cases with several defendants can last all day. The new method will also cut down on the inconvenience of all parties having to attend court in person.

Christopher Murray, head of the criminal law department at law firm Kingsley Napley, said of the scheme: "As a practitioner, I welcome any way of making more efficient any of the court procedures. A large number of hearings take place that are unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive. There have been a number of representations made supporting the view that there is room for more to be done by correspondence rather than all parties going to court."

The pilot is part of a wider project to modernise the courts that has received £94 million (149 million euros) in funding from the UK government.

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