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Advances in technology will change justice system, says Lord Chief Justice

27 October 2009

The way some of the elements of the justice system work are likely to adapt to technological progress, the Lord Chief Justice has said.

Sir Igor Judge was responding to the furore that followed the so-called ‘super-injunction’ imposed on The Guardian last week which the newspaper said banned it from reporting detail of a question tabled by Labour MP Paul Farrelly about oil trading company Trafigura.

The High Court later amended the order to clarify that it did not prevent the reporting of parliamentary proceedings.

Asked what the effect of such a super-injunction might have on other media who may not know about it, including bloggers and social networking sites, the Lord Chief Justice merely replied that injunctions were solely aimed at the defendants.

While not directly addressing the point that the courts were arguably powerless to control the internet – a situation that could undermine the effectiveness of gagging orders – he said the case raised wider issues relating to law and technology.

“There is a broader question,” he said, “which is how, as a court system and as a society generally, can we address technological development.” At this stage, he continued, “this is beyond my imagination”.

But Sir Igor suggested that thought should be given to the way in which the issue of technology affects the justice system.

One particular area likely to be most affected was the jury system, he said, suggesting that the way juries operated could radically evolve in as little as 15 years.

He said that the way the jury system worked, with jurors sitting in the jury box all day listening to evidence, was going to change.

Orality was “the essence of the jury system”, the Lord Chief Justice continued, but with technological advances there could come a day when evidence could be presented on screens that jurors could take away for consideration outside the courtroom.

He said much of the change was already being brought in by the way children were taught, with students pushing lecture notes into machines and using computers as a format to acquire knowledge.

The issue was not just one about juries, Sir Igor commented, it was a social one; and he would rather it was being addressed early and that research was carried out into how juries work before technology-driven social changes overtook the system.

The Lord Chief Justice also took the opportunity of the briefing, held to mark the first anniversary of his appointment, to defend criminal judges against criticism that they imposed too lenient sentences.

“As a judge, you must impose the sentence you believe to be right,” he said.

“There are about 100,000 cases decided in the Crown Court every year. Sometimes judges get it wrong or are unduly lenient but, in the vast majority of cases, they get it right.”

The senior judge also rejected suggestions that prison overcrowding led judges to pass shorter sentences.

However, he said it was accepted that overcrowding made conditions tougher for prisoners, making the punitive element of a prison sentence much harsher. Because of this, he suggested, there could be arguments for shorter sentences to compensate for worsened conditions.

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