The digitisation of the justice system is good news and arguably overdue in several key respects.
It makes eminent good sense, for instance, to take the simple but highly effective step of introducing wifi in all courts. Some are increasingly out of step with modernity in providing very poor 3G phone reception and no wifi, leading to the spectacle of lawyers and others having to wander around inside and outside the court building looking for hotspots. Lawyers do not have offices at court but with wifi and the right digital device they should not need them. Time and energy is wasted by those involved in court proceedings through not having easy access to digital communications.
Having the capacity to make legal aid applications online, which is already in place, is eminently sensible and reflects public expectations.
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Another highly worthwhile innovation is the creation of a so-called digital evidence vault, storing all documents and audio, video and picture content. The awkward truth is that DVDs, documents and other pieces of evidence can be lost or misplaced, or, in the case of electronic evidence from a different system, might be made in an incompatible format. A common digital storage facility, to be in place by the end of 2016, should help ensure that evidence can be located and presented quickly and with minimal fuss.
Video conferencing facilities, now to be made available to every court, have the potential to be used very effectively to allow the accused to speak to their lawyers without delay from a different location, thereby improving access to justice.
If there is one caveat to be made, however, it is that the use of video conferencing to allow witnesses to give evidence remotely must not be the thin end of the wedge. The accused in any trial has the right to look his or her accuser in the eye. Juries have the right to see witnesses give evidence in the flesh and fully assess their responses with reference to body language. There will of course be numerous instances where an individual can uncontroversially give evidence over a video link - many expert witnesses, for instance - but in other cases it will continue to be important that witnesses appear in person. It is essential that the sheriff or judge remains fully in control of deciding the circumstances in which video-conferencing is used.
Delays and costs in the Scottish justice system have been vexing problems for many years. This digital strategy has the potential to help tackle both issues. The Justice Secretary predicts savings of more than £20 to 25 million a year. Indeed, the introduction in 2011 of online legal aid applications resulted in savings of £387,000 in 2011-12. There is also the clear scope for important carbon emissions savings as a consequence of reducing journeys to and from court, both by witnesses and those dropping off evidence, and every section of the public sector has a responsibility to operate as sustainably as possible.
This process, handled with care, should improve the way the system operates and improve access to justice.