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Text messaging is being used to reduce court delays and witness waiting times in a government-backed pilot project, which was launched yesterday.

The £2.4 million scheme is being piloted at Chelmsford Crown Court, in Essex, over the next six months and will be extended to Basildon and Southend during March.

Court clerks recording the progress of a case, such as "jury is sworn-in" or "prosecution has started", directly onto a computer in the courtroom as it happens. This information can then be automatically notified to the criminal justice organisations and lawyers involved in the case by either email, via SMS or through a fax or pager.

Court staff can also use the same technology to communicate other hearing information, for example, proposing a change to court schedules if there is an unexpected guilty plea and a gap in the schedule appears.

The Crown Prosecution Office in the Court building also receives this information, allowing them to inform witnesses via mobile phone or pager when they will be required in court to give evidence.

The status of a case can also be viewed on public information screens in the court precincts or through the Court Service Web site

"By improving communication between all those involved in a case, court hearings are more likely to go ahead on the day, reducing unnecessary trips to court for victims and witnesses, including police officers," Michael Wills, minister for the courts at the Lord Chancellor's Department.

"Using technology also means that witnesses can be kept better informed so they need spend less time in the court building waiting around to give evidence," he added.

Ian Magee, Chief Executive of the Court Service, said the use of technology would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Criminal Justice System by reducing bureaucracy.

"Court staff will have to do fewer time-consuming 'ring rounds' to notify changes to hearing schedules. It will help ensure that prisoners arrive at the right courts at the right times and the cost of professional witness expenses should be reduced as a result of fewer unnecessary trips to court."

Over a quarter of Crown Court hearings are cancelled on the day they are due to go ahead. Of these, a quarter were due to a witness not attending. There is also evidence to suggest that as little as 3 per cent of police officer time attending court actually involves giving evidence.

It's hoped that the EXHIBIT (Exchanging Hearing Information by the use of Internet Technology) scheme will save taxpayers' money by avoiding unnecessarily wasting people's time.

At the end of the pilot scheme, the Court Service together with the other Criminal Justice Organisations will agree and plan the most appropriate approach to national implementation of EXHIBIT. ®

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