Digital courts’ success will win over sceptics, says senior judge

The judge leading efforts to drag the courts system into the 21st century has reassured sceptical lawyers they will be won over by technological advances.

Lord Justice Fulford, the senior presiding judge, said new methods already used in the criminal courts will soon be replicated in civil, family and tribunal buildings.

He stressed that the reaction to doing more pre-trial work online and via telephone in the criminal court – initiated two years ago – had been ‘overwhelmingly positive’.

The judge, speaking at the Bond Solon expert witness conference on Friday, stressed that video technology means we are ‘a slender moment’ away from the time when witnesses and experts will not have to go to a courthouse but instead give evidence from home.

The extension of using pre-recorded evidence in the Crown court in cases involving young and intimidated witnesses was also proving successful, and Fulford said it is foreseeable that all experts will eventually record their evidence in advance of the hearing.

‘I wish to emphasise that some of my criminal judicial brothers and sisters expressed strong early scepticism,’ said Fulford.

‘The remarkable phenomenon is that quite elderly, technologically challenged judges who vowed they would never touch a keyboard in court, are now (in under a year) working entirely digitally with skill and enthusiasm.

‘Already, the paper processes of yesteryear feel quite ridiculous and outmoded. My hope is that over the next few years the response of the professions and all others who work in our courts will be the same.’

The next stages, explained Fulford, involve the social security and child support tribunal becoming an end-to-end digital procedure, including virtual hearings. The ultimate aim of this will be to remove all paper from the SSCS operating process.

The subsequent ‘Divorce Project’ will then offer a full digital service for the public or their representative to apply for a divorce, dissolution, nullity or separation.

The judiciary is currently working on an early prototype of a digital application form for this aspect of work.

Fulford insisted the outcome of Lord Justice Briggs’ review of civil justice will be that all justice will be ‘substantively online’, with court appearances reserved for cases that really need them.

‘There is strong evidence that jurisdictions that do not regularly hold formal hearings have achieved high levels of approval (for instance, the ombudsman services),’ he said.

‘We need to ensure that the hearing in court is necessary and is proportionate for the nature of the dispute.’

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