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Skype in court as cost pressure mounts on criminal justice

16 December 2010

Pressure on costs combined with a steady rise in workload has led to greater use of technology in court including the free internet phone service Skype, the Court of Appeal’s latest annual report has revealed.

The report, produced by the court’s Criminal Division, shows an increase in the number of full conviction appeals from 431 in 2009 to 488 in 2010, and from 1,891 to 2,136 full sentence appeals.

Over the same period the number of applications for leave to appeal conviction went down from 1,336 to 1,114 and the number of applications for leave to appeal sentence from 4,737 to 4,110.

Overall, however, the number applications went up by five per cent from 6,769 to 7,133, pushing the number of sittings for lord justices to an all-time high of 787 and the number of judges’ reading days to 450.

The number of court sitting days for High Court judges went up from 1,221 to 1,412, with the number of reading days leaping from 498 to 712.

The increase in case load was accompanied with greater reliance on IT, in particular video link, for appellants, witnesses and even counsel.

The technology has helped the giving of evidence by vulnerable witness, the report says, even allowing a witness with significant health problems to give evidence from home.

Video link hearings were held with 128 locations, including 35 prisons. The technology has also made it possible to involve appellants detained in different prisons at the same time.

In one case, a barrister involved in a Crown Court trial in Birmingham was even permitted to appear in an appeal in London by video link to avoid further disruption to the trial that would have been caused by requiring him to attend court in person.

Appeal judges hope use of technology will increase, speeding up processes and saving costs, but there is awareness that technological process improvement also comes at a price.

International video conferencing, although cheaper than flying witnesses based abroad to the UK, can cost £1,000 per hour, to which must be added the cost of equipment hire.

As an alternative the Court of Appeal has used Skype for the first time last year, saying it was “a useful alternative and significantly cheaper”.

Hinting that the court was likely to consider Skype further, the report said this could “enable witnesses to give evidence from a wider range of locations, and avoid them having to travel to special conference facilities as all that is needed is a quiet room and a computer connected to the internet”.

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Costs Expert witness Courts & Judiciary