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Government to press on with virtual courts

22 December 2010

The government will press on with virtual courts despite the findings in an evaluation report expressing doubts over cost savings and efficiencies.

The virtual court pilot, which ran for a year from May 2009, sought to assess alternatives to so-called traditional court processes and identify potential improvements.

Jonathan Djanogly said the government was committed to reforming the courts service to deliver a modern, efficient justice system where use of video technology played an important part.

“The purpose of the virtual courts pilot was to test whether the process could work and whether it was worth further development,” the minister said, before adding: “The evaluation has shown this to be the case.”

Djanogly confirmed that the virtual courts selected for the pilot would continue to operate for an extended trial period scheduled to last until March 2011. He said the effort was now on “achieving value for money, improving the operating model and further evaluating their effectiveness”.

The pilot covered two magistrates’ courts – Camberwell, in London, and one in north Kent – and 16 police stations, 15 of which were in London.

The evaluation report published on Monday by the Ministry of Justice found that “overall the virtual court pilot added cost to the delivery of criminal justice in the London pilot area”.

The report said savings were made in prisoner transportation because defendants did not have to be taken to court for the first hearing. There were also reduced crown prosecution service costs thanks to the electronic transfer of files.

However, the report also found that the savings were exceeded by the additional costs generated by the virtual court process.

“Economic modelling suggests that a roll-out would cost more than it would save over a ten-year period,” the report stated. “Scenario analysis suggests that achieving a break-even point with roll-out might be possible but that it would require substantial changes to be made to improve the performance of the process.”

The pilot was successful in speeding up the court process in one area, according to the report, which was to reduce the average time from charge to first hearing.

Proposals for improvements include the restriction of the virtual courts’ jurisdiction to custody cases only and increasing the number of hearings per hour from four to six.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the report showed the system would work but that it would have to be more cost efficient before it would be possible to get to a point where it was embedded in the wider criminal justice system.

He added that improvements had been made since completion of the pilot and that there were no expectations for the system to pay for itself in the first year in light of the high start-up costs.

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Legal Aid Conveyancing Courts & Judiciary