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English, Welsh Courts to Embrace Internet

[London, ENGLAND] The court system in England and Wales is to leap from the 19th to the 21st century in one bound with the creation of virtual courts to enable litigation over the Internet.

In a consultation paper issued this week by the Court Service, most of the county courts in the two countries will be equipped with the new technology. The Government says it will spend US $63 million on the project.

The first step will be taken in February at Preston County Court when parties to cases will be able to e-mail their interim applications to the judge. This will be followed by a Web-based claims service that is expected to go online during the next year.

Other plans that involve using the Internet in the court system include a 24-hour information service, allowing people to obtain forms and leaflets whenever they want them. The consultation paper also anticipates the use of electronic payments systems, with accounts for regular users.

The proposals go beyond the Internet to include recommendations for improved technology to display documents electronically in the courtroom, together with digital audio recording of hearings and judgments in civil and family courts as well as Crown Courts.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion is that the public, "where appropriate," will be given direct access to court hearings over the Internet.

Of great interest to the law profession itself is the proposed establishment of "Gateway Partnerships" that will allow users to visit with their advisers while linking electronically to the court at the same time.

With funding already set aside, it seems likely that many of the recommendations will be implemented. The Court Service is an executive agency of the Lord Chancellor's Department and its duties include providing administrative support to the High Court, the Crown Court and the county courts in England and Wales.