Leaps in technology mean key witnesses will be able to give evidence in ‘virtual courts’ without leaving their homes. Jeanette Oldham reports

As the march of hi-tech solutions to everyday tasks continues at incredible pace, the West Midlands legal system is at the forefront of the digital age.

Laptops have already replaced traditional bulging briefcases for prosecutors, and court notes are now called up at the touch of a button.

Now there are plans for defendants to be prosecuted in a ‘virtual court’, with police giving live video statements from a studio miles away – and witnesses allowed to do the same from in front of a computer in their living room.

This vision of the future is becoming a reality as a technological revolution in the criminal justice system gathers pace in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Police in one division are giving live evidence from Sutton Coldfield police station.

West Midlands Crown Prosecution Service has revealed Birmingham could become one of the first cities to trial ‘virtual’ courts and Birmingham Magistrates Court has just been given the go-ahead by the Ministry of Justice to start doing some pilots.

Chief Crown Prosecutor with West Midlands CPS, Harry Ireland, said: “There could be a variety of hearings and trials eventually held in ‘cyberspace’.

‘’The concept of everybody journeying to court, often quite lengthy, is old hat because so many of the hearings could be dealt with in ‘cyberspace’.”

This investment in technology has been borne of necessity, as it is helping West Midlands CPS save millions of pounds a year.

The service locally has suffered £10 million of cuts since the Coalition came to power, with more planned this year.

Mr Ireland has overseen tough savings in the West Midlands, including reducing management by over 25 per cent and slashing the regional divisions from four to one.

The cuts have also forced a subtle change in tactics by West Midlands CPS and Courts Service, with earlier guilty pleas now being targeted to save costly crown court trials.

Yet as well as looking to make efficiencies, Mr Ireland and his award-winning team have embraced the positive role technology can have in reducing costs.

Mr Ireland said: “It’s about much greater use of technology in everything we do – from the very moment someone is arrested to the moment somebody is sentenced.

“For example, I would start at the very beginning. When an officer begins their investigation they have an iPad or similar device where they record all the evidence there and then, press a button and it comes to us literally instantaneously. The digital process will save a huge amount of time and money.”

Technology is already having an impact in Birmingham magistrates’ courts. The cases heard in the magistrates’ courts nationally make up 95 per cent of the CPS’ work.

Mr Ireland said: “Virtually all of our magistrates’ courts in Birmingham are prosecuted on tablet.

“The prosecutor will have a tablet. Before they go to court the files for their court are loaded on to the tablet and the files for the other courts too, in case the court starts moving cases around.

“We have also been running an experiment now for six months at Sutton police station where there is a room with a video camera and a video link. One of the court rooms here in Birmingham is linked to that so that officers don’t need to come into Birmingham, they just go there and give their evidence over the live link. The police obviously appreciate it.

“My vision for this is gradually what we should be doing for witnesses in the future – linking up by Skype or webcam so that people can give their evidence from their homes or offices. In every trial – crown court as well.”

Mr Ireland added: ‘’It should make it so much easier for witnesses to give evidence without the fear of going to court. It would also make witnesses more willing to give evidence.”

Switching to digital could also see huge savings in crime case paper storage – nationally put at an astonishing £3 million in 2010.

Mr Ireland said: “It was crazy that we were such a paper-dependent organisation. Everything we received from the police was paper-based so evidence was paper-based, other than for example CCTV. Storage wise, it’s a nightmare and for bigger cases you could fill rooms with the files, quite easily. That’s just one example of where the savings could be made.”

As part of the cuts programme, regional CPS offices in Wolverhampton, Stafford and Coventry have closed, with many staff moving to the Birmingham HQ.

Mr Ireland said the West Midlands was facing a further £1.9 million savings this year, with Shrewsbury and Droitwich offices closing and more staff relocating.

But could he also see courts closing to save money in the future?

“Quite possibly but there has already been a programme of court closures last year,” he said.

“Our primary goal in anything that we do as CPS is to get justice. The one thing I am not here for is to waste money. So I can achieve both justice and efficiency by doing things in a different way.

“We want to make sure that the public get good value for money. But at the same time it is not at the cost of quality.

“When HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate came to visit our offices to assess how we organise our Crown Court advocacy, they saw exactly what we had achieved, and made a recommendation to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP Keir Starmer) that ours was the model that should be championed nationally.

And last year that was what was rolled out nationally.”

The West Midlands is also clearly at the centre of the technological revolution.

So could Mr Ireland foresee entire trials of the future being held, in essence, in ‘cyberspace’?

“Yes, I can,’’ he said.

“At the moment technology’s not 100 per cent and it’s time consuming.

“But once you’ve reached a certain tipping point that’s when you start to see the dividends. There is no turning back on this. Once you’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of technology, it has to develop.”