The introduction of court video link systems to speed up the justice process and drive down legal costs could have unintended consequences and face significant resistance unless lessons are learnt from the Ministry of Justice's Dutch counterparts, according to a new report published by the RSA.
A Virtual Day in Court: Design Thinking & Virtual Courts warns that the MOJ's upcoming pilot of 'virtual courts' across Kent, Bromley, Westminster, Cheshire and Hertfordshire could benefit from first consulting a much wider group of stakeholders.
The report concludes that the current Virtual Courts pilots may have prioritised the needs of lawyers and judges over prisoners, witnesses, court staff, police officers and members of the public.
The report recommends the MOJ replicates how the Dutch introduced technology to their justice system by taking a 'design led approach' in which new systems or products are carefully tested and prototyped before being piloted.
Commenting on the report, Senior RSA Researcher and author of the report Jamie Young said:
"Our research shows that a change of this kind to the UK court system requires a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural and legal impacts that the introduction of technology will have. Whilst the MOJ should be commended for experimenting with new formats, there's an urgent need to take a more holistic 'whole system' approach. I fear that the pilots as they're currently planned will struggle to integrate with what is a traditional court system, unless prototypes are first widely tested and consulted upon".
The report concludes that whilst the MOJ's current Virtual Courts pilot may have tested the technology satisfactorily, that other elements of the system, such as barristers' difficulty in cross examining over video, or interpreters' dislike of 'reading' their client, are easily forgotten.
A Virtual Day in Court presents three conclusions about how lessons from the Dutch system can be applied to the UK:
Inspiration: All court users (from magistrate to courtroom cleaner) should be involved in efforts to find creative ways of improving courtrooms – ideas often come from unexpected places.
Prototype: New ideas should be rapidly tested with court users before larger scale pilots, reducing the risk of expensive failure further down the line.
Execution: Criminal justice agencies should look to 'design thinking' as a method of innovation, and should embed design skills within their organisation's culture.
The RSA's publishes its report following the 2010 spending review in which the Ministry of Justice's overall budget was cut by 26 percent. The Ministry has since proposed closing 103 magistrates' courts and 54 country courts, projected to save £15.3m a year and is currently piloting a virtual court system – 'Live Links' – in Medway and Camberwell Green.
It is also hoped the entire court system will go digital as early as next spring, with secure electronic transfer of files between relevant parties becoming standard practise.