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Online justice reforms hamstrung by UK’s slow internet speeds in rural areas

Virtual court hearings are being introduced in a new justice bill but the UK’s patchy broadband speed could scupper these plans, according to ministers.

Many rural communities will be unable to use the new online innovations because their internet is so slow, Labour’s Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) said.

The warning comes as a string of reforms - including powers to deal with rail and tram fare dodgers in online courts and for rape victims to pre-record their cross-examination evidence - contained in the Prisons and Courts Bill are debated by MPs in the Commons.

“All this transfer [to] online communication is wonderful if only you have the ability to get quality broadband,” Moon said.

“So, in parts of my constituency, communities are getting broadband as slow as 25 per cent of capability. How on earth are people going to be able to access justice when they cannot possibly do anything online because of poor broadband?”

Justice Secretary Liz Truss said those who want to take the trip to a physical court will still be able to.

She said: “We are doing a lot to improve broadband across the country. The online system is not mandatory, the paper process will be available.

“But I have been looking recently at virtual hearings that are taking place across the country and in some areas of the country, like the South West of England, there is very high take-up of these hearings because it does help people in rural areas who do have long distances to travel to get to court to be able to use broadband.

“The West Country is leading the way at the moment, but what we are looking at is how can we encourage courts across the country to do the same thing.”

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said new technology in courts could raise new barriers to accessing justice.

He said: “As the chair of the Bar Council, Andrew Langdon QC, has warned, the fact that online courts - in his words - might encourage defendants to plead guilty out of convenience, when in fact they may not be guilty of an offence, no matter how small, risks injustice.

“We have to be mindful of that.”

Burgon also cited Law Society warnings about poor access to legal advice as a result of the technology.

Tory Bob Neill, chairman of the justice select committee, warned that virtual hearings should only be used where appropriate.

He said: “We need to make sure that when there are virtual hearings taking place - there is often a very good case for that - it shouldn’t always drift into that being a default position.

“Obviously you don’t have that for a trial but you can think of other forms of interlocutory proceedings where physical presence can be appropriate.

“We need to make sure we don’t have too broad a brush an approach to that.”

Conservative Philip Davies also raised concerns about the use of video links and warned that protecting victims should not supersede a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

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