Skype and FaceTime could be introduced to UK courtrooms to cut costs
Video-call technology such as Skype and FaceTime could be used to allow criminal defendants to take part in court hearings from home, the most senior judge in England and Wales has said.
In his first press conference, the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, said using applications such as Skype and FaceTime would be an innovative method of bringing down the cost of administrative hearings held in the run up to a trial.
Lord Thomas, who succeeded Lord Judge on October 1, suggested lawyers, prisoners and defendants released on bail could all communicate with the court using the technology.
Covering a broad range of legal issues, the Lord Chief Justice also promised to launch a public consultation on guidelines for judges dealing with defendants wearing face-veils for religious reasons.
Asked if spending cuts meant more court buildings being sold, he said: "No I don't think it does mean selling off buildings.
"It means looking at what is the best court estate we can have and actually investing for the long term."
Lord Thomas went on: "There are innovative ways of actually providing open justice bearing in mind things such as Skype and Facetime.
"We need to loosen up our use of Skype and Facetime, which current IT systems don't really allow.
"I'm very keen we should because most of what happens in court you don't have problems with security and we can be much more open to use of Skype and Facetime than we traditionally have been."
The Lord Chief Justice said there was currently scope for use of Skype and FaceTime at pre-trial hearings.
He said: "A lot of the difficulties we have... is that to make a court case work well you need a pre-trial hearing, but it is often very expensive to get a prisoner or a person who is out on bail to come to court, to get the lawyers to come to court and I think a lot of this can be solved by the use of technology."
Lord Thomas said he singled out Skype and FaceTime due to "cost".
He added: "CCTV, specially dedicated, is very expensive and one of the difficulties we had is instead of using cheap technology, we go in for over-engineered solutions supposedly mandated by security concerns."
Asked if he ever envisaged defendants appearing from home, the Lord Chief Justice said: "I can see it happening for a pre-trial hearings - whether one could go any further would depend - but certainly pre-trial hearing stage is one place we have to make changes."
"We have to look at solutions that are innovative and will bring down the cost of litigation because we can't afford to go on as we once did."
Discussing cost-saving, Lord Thomas said the IT in courts is "not the most modern" and "significant investment" is needed.
During the conference, he revealed that new guidelines on dealing with face-veils in courtrooms, such as an Islamic niqab, would go out to public consultation.
In September, a judge ruled that a Muslim woman would be allowed to stand trial while wearing a full-face veil but must remove it while giving evidence.
And earlier this week, Prime Minister David Cameron and minister Kenneth Clarke have both spoken out against women being allowed to wear veils while giving evidence in court.
The Lord Chief Justice said: "We consider the best way for dealing with this matter is to make a practice direction. It's not an easy subject and we're in the process of drafting a practice direction.
"The basic principle will be that it must be for the judge in any case to make his own or her own decision but we will give clear guidance.
"We hope to be able to issue a draft for consultation in the very near future and I don't want to anticipate beyond what I've just said what will go there.
"But we shall look forward to all your assistance in trying to reach the right answer to what is without doubt a problem that many people found divisive."
He went on: "I wouldn't describe it as the elephant in the courtroom but it is an important issue that has to be addressed.
"I regard it as the responsibility of the senior judiciary to give guidance and it will be guidance that is not merely 'well it all depends' but starting from a clear starting point giving fairly reasonable guidance as to what should happen.
"What we intend to do is put that out to public consultation and then finalise it."