Digitising summary criminal business is a tough nut to crack, but a bold attempt has been made
The digital revolution is pretty much a way of life now for most branches of the profession. Digitising the caseload of the summary criminal courts must, however, be something of a final frontier. Many who appear as accused are people whose patterns of behaviour do not, shall we say, fit readily into any computer model. Indeed it may take a degree of coercion to get them to appear at all, and trying to coordinate accused and witnesses for a summary trial must often be the stuff of nightmares.
We should not be too surprised, therefore, at figures that record that approximately 52,000 summary trial diets are fixed each year for an end product of 9,000 actual trials. We can believe too that not only Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service but pretty well anyone with an interest in the summary justice system would like to see less wastage.
Hence the efforts of the working group that has produced the proposals described in this month's lead feature should be applauded. Given a remit to start with a blank sheet and think “clear sky”, it has made a serious attempt to show how the various procedural permutations can be brought within a digitally based, case managed system in which court diets are kept to a minimum until disputed issues are narrowed and trial can be set to take place within a few weeks.
Will the proposals work? What all involved are keen to emphasise is that the debate starts now, and the floor is open for feedback, particularly from defence lawyers.
For many, the first question will be what it means in terms of legal aid payments. That of course is still to be confirmed, though there is no mention as yet of any expectation that new efficiencies should be reflected in lower fixed fees. One could argue, conversely, that the current fee does not reflect dead time often spent in court; further, the solicitors on the working group have pointed out that, as with other procedure reforms, there is more “front loading”, i.e. work required at an earlier stage, in order to meet the demands of case management.
Some worry that there will be fewer occasions for budding lawyers to hone their advocacy skills. That may be true, but is not something that should stand in the way of otherwise desirable reforms. There would still be important pre-trial hearings to determine, for example, what evidence should be taken to be agreed.
Now if we can just persuade the court-shy that there is no hiding place...