Thousands of criminal suspects will lose the right to appear in court and be brought instead before ?virtual? courts conducted via video links under plans before Parliament next week.
Within hours of being charged, defendants ? even those accused of murder or rape ? will have their first ?cyber? hearings from a police station. They may be bailed or remanded in custody or, in the case of guilty pleas to less serious offences such as shoplifting, be sentenced and punished.
There are fears that the plan could limit the ability of defence lawyers to put together a strong case and curtail the ability of the media to report on hearings that are arranged at short notice. It could even lead to people spending longer in custody because they cannot find the money for bail applications.
The plan is expected to save ?10 million a year when it is extended across England and Wales next year.
Initially, it will be run from 14 police stations in London and across north Kent from June, handling an estimated 15,000 cases over the year and saving ?2.2 million in police and court time and in transport of prisoners.
The pilot scheme is voluntary, but under the Coroners and Justice Bill about to come before the House of Lords for its second reading defendants will lose the right to choose whether to have a ?virtual? hearing.
Paul Marsh, the president of the Law Society, said that the scheme was being brought in after testing on only a small scale and he raised several concerns. ?This is a new and relatively untried method of conducting what is a vital first hearing in the magistrates? court where a number of important decisions are made,? he said. ?The defendant should have the right to be present in that crucial first hearing, rather than be beamed in as though it was a video-conference meeting.?
He warned that although the scheme was designed to save costs and speed up justice, it could increase pressure on prisons. ?If the defendant and his solicitor are unable to gather the necessary information to support a bail application or locate a potential surety, people who would currently be held overnight and released on bail the following day will instead be remanded in custody for many days or even weeks.?
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: ?The first principle of justice is that it should be fair, and the second is that it should be open, from the moment the process starts. The public must be able to be aware when someone is charged and put before a court, otherwise that principle is undermined. This is as much an important principle for the defendant as the public.?
Magistrates also have some reservations about the scheme. John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates? Association, said: ?There can be many benefits from the use of technology, but while we all want to improve efficiency justice must never be compromised. It is appropriate for some defendants arrested in the afternoon with straightforward circumstances to be offered an immediate [virtual] court hearing. But for others there must be safeguards against being pressurised to follow such a route.?
The association, which represents 27,000 magistrates in England and Wales, was already concerned about the number of cases not coming before the courts and being dealt with by fixed penalties ? on-the-spot fines ? of which fewer than half are ever paid. Mr Thornhill said that a virtual court had at least the potential benefit of ?bringing such offenders into an open public court where justice can be seen to be done and where they can be made to pay compensation to their victim?.
The idea of virtual courts was first tested in 2007 over 12 weeks in Camberwell Green Magistrates? Court, where the average time from charge to hearing was three and a half hours.
During a hearing the virtual court ?sits? at both the police station and the magistrates? court. The defendant?s solicitor can be at either the police station or the court and members of the public will be able to see the defendant on a screen in court.
If the magistrates or a district judge at any stage feel that the process is unsuitable for that case they can terminate proceedings and refer it to a standard hearing.
The Ministry of Justice says that as well as speeding up the delivery of justice the pilot will reduce delays caused by defendants failing to turn up to hearings or paperwork not being ready; free up police time and enable courts to hear more cases; and reduce the movement of prisoners, saving money on transport costs and cutting the risk of prisoners absconding.
It will also save money. The Attorney-General, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, QC, said: ?Although the virtual courts project was set in train before the current economic difficulties, its potential for an efficient first stage in the life of a court case, backed by thorough safeguards, is more relevant than ever.?