The Justice Ministry has announced a trial of new technologies to make the justice system more accessible and accountable to the public.
Beginning on 1 August, proceedings in the High Court in Wellington will be streamed live on a dedicated website, and online viewers will be able to interact with trial participants in different ways.
The pilot project will run for three months.
Project facilitator Damien Everett said the aim of the pilot was to deliver a more open and accountable system, where case outcomes were better reflective of community norms and standards.
Mr Everett said the project also had the potential to reduce operational costs within the court system.
Under the pilot project trials will be streamed live on a dedicated website, with trial results being determined by way of vote. Civil cases will be decided by a simple majority of votes, while a criminal conviction will require at least 60% of the votes cast to be in favour of a “guilty” verdict. The higher threshold for criminal trials reflects the need for verdicts to be based on guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”.
The pilot will allow votes to be cast at any time during a trial, and voters will not need to wait until all of the evidence in a case has been heard. Officials are confident that this feature will satisfy the current demand by the public to decide the guilt or innocence of a defendant without hearing more than a fraction of the evidence.
Viewers will also be able to participate in sentencing for criminal matters, and the award of damages and other remedies in civil trials.
Mr Everett said a lot of work had been done to ensure the pilot project was a success.
“We’ve pumped a lot of money into getting the right user interfaces, in order to optimise the customer experience,” said Mr Everett.
“We have also developed a Facebook app, and apps for the iPhone and iPad, to encourage public participation.”
Voting will be open to anyone aged 18 or over, and viewers will be allowed to vote as often as they like.
A small fee will be charged per vote. Mr Everett said the charge was necessary to cover the costs of the pilot project.
“If people text their votes there will be a ninety-nine cent charge via their telecommunications service provider,” said Mr Everett.
“We don’t want to discourage public participation, but we don’t think a small charge will deter people from taking part.”
The pilot project will also involve the trial of a new interactive technology called the “poke”.
Previous court hearings, particularly criminal trials, have long suffered from the inability of the public to take their outrage out on the trial participants, such as witnesses, the lawyers, and the defendant.
Under the new technology the decision by a viewer to “poke” one of the trial participants will result in a specially trained court official jabbing the person concerned in the chest with their forefinger, while berating them using a choice of lines selected by the viewer. The lines include “you piece of scum, shooting’s too good for you,” “I don’t know how you can sleep at night defending that filth,” and “this is all a beat-up by the pigs against an innocent man. Shame on you!”
The site will also run a live commentary feed, allowing those watching a trial to comment on what they are seeing.
The project will be run and managed by Julie Christie’s television production company Eyeworks. Christie’s production credits include the shows Missing Pieces, New Zealand’s Hottest Home Baker, and Are You Smarter Than a 10 Year Old? The venue for trials during the pilot project will remain the Wellington High Court building, but a full rollout of the project would see the criminal trials of celebrities and good looking young people take place in exotic holiday locations, or in the kitchens of award-winning restaurants.
One of the biggest issues with the pilot is its cost. In the last budget $2.4 million was allocated to the project, but a full rollout across the country would cost between $5-10 million per year. However, the cost savings overall are likely to be considerable, as jurors will no longer need to be paid, fed, or put up in hotels.
Additionally, revenues from selling advertising space are likely to result in the site making a healthy profit.
The Justice Ministry has said that the project will be reviewed by the end of the year, and a decision will be made in February whether to roll the initiative out across the rest of the country.
The pilot project is controversial, and many lawyers and community justice groups are outraged at the plans.
“Justice is not a popularity contest, nor is it a beauty parade,” said top barrister Tabatha Wilde, QC.
“The only thing that matters is the evidence, not whether the public like someone.”
But Gary McCrikery of the First Family Sentencing Trust, has labelled such comments as “elitist” and “undemocratic.”
“We’re delighted the government is finally listening to the people,” said Mr McCrikery.
“We welcome any moves to open up the justice system to scrutiny, and to encourage the public to participate in trials.
“We agree that justice should be blind, but why can’t it be deaf and dumb as well?”