Vulnerable victims and witnesses will no longer have to appear in court under plans for pre-trial evidence sessions announced in a historic joint ministerial and judicial paper.
The consultation, Transforming Our Justice System, proposed that cross-examinations of certain witnesses will be recorded and played during the trial to spare them the stress of re-living ‘traumatic’ events in open court.
It follows what the paper described as three ‘successful’ pilots, in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-upon-Thames Crown Courts. Based on interviews with eight witnesses, the paper said the trial showed victims felt less pressure with pre-trial evidence giving and were better able to recall events.
Issued jointly by the Lord Chancellor, Senior President of Tribunals and Lord Chief Justice in September, it also outlined plans to make the system more straightforward by reducing legal jargon and allowing people to plead guilty to some minor offences and pay fines online – beginning with transport fare dodging.
The paper re-stated the commitment to invest almost £1bn to modernise the courts and its intention to simplify divorce and probate processes and enable much of both to be completed online.
Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, said: ‘We want a justice system that works for everyone. That means creating a system that is just, proportionate and accessible.
‘We have the tools and the technology to cut unnecessary paperwork, to deliver swifter justice and to make the experience more straightforward.’
A separate consultation sought views on modernising working practices for judges and to attract talented and diverse candidates to this career.
Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said the central tenet of the paper – ‘justice for everyone’ – resonates strongly with the Bar Council.
But she said the reforms present three challenges: how the broad vision of the system becomes a reality; ensuring the necessary investment of finance, time and people is available; and ensuring that while embracing innovation and change, the justice system is not undermined.
Doerries welcomed investment to modernise courts and IT, but repeated concerns raised that the plans to introduce online courts for all civil money claims by 2020 risked creating a two-tier system.