A decade ago, a Law Commission discussion paper portrayed our court system as too slow, too expensive, mysterious and unhelpful. So deep were the flaws that it was debatable whether the principle of justice for all was being achieved, the commission said.
Such commendable frankness prompted steps to remedy the situation. Ten years on, however, there is clearly still a long way to go when, for example, some defendants and victims are having to wait more than three years for their cases to be heard by a jury.
This provides all the more reason, therefore, to welcome an initiative that allows people wanting to dispute an infringement notice to apply via email, rather than go to court or post it in.
This appeals as a timely use of modern technology to much improve efficiency in cases that are black and white. Unsurprisingly, the email line, which is monitored by court staff to make spot decisions, has proved popular. According to Justice secretary and chief executive Andrew Bridgman, about 40 per cent of applications were filed by email in the line's first month, even though it was introduced without fanfare or publicity. Almost all were processed within 24 hours.
He suggests the email line will lead people to see the justice system as more reliable and trustworthy. They will also see it as less daunting.
Underpinning many of the issues afflicting the court system is its sheer complexity. This led Bridgman to tell Parliament's justice and electoral select committee that "the justice system and, in particular, the court system is not focused on the people who use the system, is unnecessarily complicated, not accessible in modern-day terms and largely depends on paper and physical attendance at the court, is not timely, is expensive, and the increase in costs are not reflected in better outcomes".
That list suggests precious little progress has been made in the past decade. There is, however, good reason to exercise caution, rather than rush into apparent quick-fixes to make justice faster and less expensive. Cutting corners without taking due care cannot be done with something so important. There is, for example, some reason for concern over aspects of the Criminal Procedure Act that take effect this year.
Bridgman notes that "it will mean 31,000 fewer court events a year, which is about 10,000 sitting hours; and mean that 350 to 500 fewer cases require a jury trial each year". The legislation allows judge-alone trials for offences with a maximum term of imprisonment of fewer than two years. The accused can no longer elect to be tried by a jury. It is easy to see the benefit in time saved. Nobody, least of all those on trial, should have to wait years for a decision. For one thing, witnesses' ability to recall events may be impaired by the passage of time. Equally, however, the right to be judged by fellow-citizens has always been an important aspect of the justice system, especially when a person's liberty is at stake. In an ideal world, the jury option would remain available whenever the Crown sought a prison sentence.
If that is not possible because the court system is in serious need of repair, every effort should still be made to strike an acceptable balance. In that regard, modern technology has a large, and largely uncontroversial, role to play in saving time and money.
Already, video links are being increasingly used, so there is less need to bring people to court. Likewise, the new email line for infringement notices is excellent for straightforward cases. Indeed, anything that a court system struggling under suffocating caseloads can do to streamline itself and remove complexity and expense will be a huge benefit, not least for an often perplexed public.