In the Media

Video link pilot paves way for virtual cases

PUBLISHED May 12, 2007

Defendants in custody may make their first court appearance on video link from a police station ? in a potential first step towards ?virtual courts? ? if a Courts Service pilot is successful, the Gazette can reveal.

But critics of the scheme have warned of a ?real risk? of miscarriages of justice, and that defence counsel will have to work longer hours for no more money.

The Courts Service is to test putting defendants before magistrates for first hearings using video-conferencing technology from 29 May. Camberwell Green Magistrates? Court in London will be linked to four police stations, where defendants will have the opportunity to have their first hearings within hours of being charged.

The Courts Service said this is a prototype system that will be evaluated in the autumn. It is slated to run for 12 weeks. The last six weeks will involve extended hours, to test if courts could be used more within the working day.

Andrew Morley, chief executive of the London Criminal Justice Board, told the Gazette: ?Virtual courts have the potential to transform how the justice system deals with low-level crime such as public order offences, theft and criminal damage. First appearance, plea and judicial sentence will be possible without the defendant, their representative, police or CPS needing to set foot in the courthouse.?

Defendants will need to consent to being part of the scheme, and multi-handed cases and youth cases will be exempt.

But the move indicates that the government?s push for efficiency and summary justice potentially overrides rights to a fair trial, it has been claimed.

Robert Brown, executive officer of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, said: ?The fact that they can come up with this idea does show their genuine lack of fundamental regard for a balanced justice system. People should not be bounced from a charge room to a virtual court in a police station. Justice should be administered in court.?

Mr Brown said that in non-contentious cases, there could be real advantages to such a system. But, he said, there is ?real risk that in some cases justice may be miscarried?.

Because the prototype is specifically designed to test whether ?effective hours? can be extended, but new standard fee rates will apply, criminal defence lawyers will likely end up doing more work for the same money, Mr Brown added.

The Courts Service said that such a system, if rolled out nationally, would save money by reducing the number of ?failure to appear? warrants and ensuring there were fewer escapees.