The Virtual Court is a new initiative aiming to speed up first hearings and improve the service given to victims and witnesses. It enables a defendant, who is charged in a police custody suite, to appear in a magistratesâ€™ court for a first hearing whilst still physically located in the Police Station. It is claimed that this reduces the time from charge to first hearing from days to just a few hours in most instances. A Virtual Court combines video conferencing technology, an on-line â€˜virtualâ€™ collaboration space allowing case files to be shared electronically, and secure links to join up the agencies involved.
Last week, Charing Cross Police Station was linked with Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court in a virtual court hearing, with a 14 further stations taking part in the scheme over the coming months. Already one defendant has been jailed for drink driving, just hours after his arrest. Currently defendants held at Charing Cross have the right to refuse to take part in the trial, but that right would be removed by legislation before Parliament. Justice Secretary Jack Straw has backed the pilot scheme, claiming virtual courts have the potential to â€œtransform how the justice system deals with crimes. Although at an early stage, this pilot helps the courts, police, prosecutors, defence lawyers and the judiciary work better together to deliver quicker and more effective justice without any loss of quality. The faster we get justice done, the more we improve public confidence in the criminal justice system as whole,â€ said Straw.
But the Law Society has expressed grave concerns. They claim that Virtual Courts could see thousands of defendants losing their right to appear in court. Richard Miller, Law Society Legal Aid Manager, said that “There are major practical considerations about virtual courts that have not yet been satisfactorily addressedâ€, instancing worsening delays increasing the number of ineffective hearings and solicitors not being able to gather the information necessary for a bail application in the time available. They question how defendants will get confidential advice and how their lawyers will get access to the relevant paperwork for second hearings. And they also have â€œgrave concerns over the safety of its members – under this scheme defendants will be sat in a small room right next to their solicitorâ€. Jack Straw addressed this point particularly when he said â€œI never had any experience of a defendant threatening me. There are a lot of police officers and custody officers in the custody suiteâ€.
The Office of Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) is set to outline the future for the virtual courts pilot scheme next week following this trial. They will seek to â€œexplain the schemeâ€™s ability to lower costs and improve efficiency as part of the governmentâ€™s drive to use technology more effectively in justice deliveryâ€.