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Summary procedure digital reforms aim to cut "churn"

28 February 2017

A digital transformation of summary criminal court procedure with the potential to vastly reduce the number of court hearings, cut court "churn" and limit the numbers of witnesses required to appear is contained in proposals published today by Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (SCTS).

Developed by a working group consisting of experienced professionals from across the justice sector, Evidence and Procedure Review: A New Model for Summary Criminal Court Procedure outlines how procedure could be transformed to use modern technology and put a new emphasis on case management. This in turn would reduce the current level of "churn", where cases do not proceed as planned, with repeated court hearings before moving on to the next stage. As well as causing unnecessary costs, this churn is not only inefficient but creates stress and uncertainty for those involved in proceedings, particularly victims and witnesses. 

The latest paper, which follows two previous reports under the Evidence and Procedure Review, puts forward a new model under which much of the procedure that is currently conducted in courtrooms can and should be conducted digitally, with stricter case management rules and set timescales. Among its proposals:

  • As a general rule, all pre-trial procedure should take place as part of a digital case management process.  Court hearings should only be used for contested pre-trial preliminary pleas or case management issues.  Particular arrangements will be required for cases where the accused is in custody or does not have legal representation.
  • An intermediate diet and trial diet should not be allocated (and witnesses should not be cited) on the lodging of a not guilty plea, as happens at present, but only after the case management process is complete and it appears that the trial diet is very likely to proceed. This should mean fewer witnesses, including police witnesses, are cited and inconvenienced.
  • Strong judicial oversight of the case management process should be applied to bring about more agreement of evidence where possible, and to ensure summary trials focus on what is truly in dispute.
  • In the majority of cases in which guilty pleas are tendered, there should be the option for sentencing to be conducted digitally without the need for a court appearance on the part of the accused, but only if the sheriff or justice of the peace deems it appropriate.

Underpinning the process are three key "digital enablers": digital evidence will increasingly become the norm; a Digital Evidence and Information Vault will be created to allow efficient storage, disclosure and sharing of digital evidence; and a digital case management system will replace existing court systems to facilitate digital case management and communication between prosecution, defence and court professionals. 

The paper states that a move towards digital evidence would alow both better informed case marking and earlier disclosure of evidence to the defence, and therefore better informed defence advice.

SCTS will lead a programme of public discussion events covering the report during the spring (details to be announced on the SCTS website), following which it will report to the Justice Board with recommendations.

Introducing the report, SCTS chief executive Eric McQueen commented: “With the digital age well and truly upon us, we are surrounded by technology that shapes our lives, connects us and transforms the way that we conduct and transact business online. Against this background we have the opportunity to reconsider fundamentally how our services are delivered.

"It is fair to say that our summary criminal court procedure has not kept pace with such innovation. Our criminal courts, with their origins in the Victorian times, still rely heavily on paper transactions, postal-based practices and bringing people together in a courtroom for procedural hearings and trials, many months after an incident. As recent Audit Scotland reports have highlighted, this brings inherent inefficiency, delay and inconvenience."

He added: "Our task now is to bring our summary criminal court procedure right into the 21st century, not by tinkering at the edges, but by radical digital transformation to improve the quality of justice for all concerned. I am convinced that by having the right dialogue with the right people, we can realise that possibility.”

Click here to view the report. 

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