Online justice gets first hearing

At the moment a 'plea and directions hearing' is held before a trial. This establishes how the defendant pleads and which court is most suited to hear the trial. Until now submissions have been oral. The new scheme lets barristers for both sides submit detailed arguments and paperwork via a secure Web site.

The potential cost savings are significant, given the average cost of keeping a courtroom open for a day is £9000 ($24,000). While straightforward hearings can take just 15 minutes to complete, more complex cases with several defendants can last all day. The new method will also cut down on the inconvenience of all parties having to attend court in person.

"As a practitioner, I welcome any way of making more efficient any of the court procedures," Christopher Murray, head of the criminal law department of law firm Kingsley Napley, said of the scheme. "A large number of hearings take place that are unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive."

The pilot is part of a wider project to modernise the courts that has received £94 million ($250 million) in funding from the government.

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