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Virtual courts pilot fails to deliver improvements to criminal justice system

21 December 2010

The virtual courts pilot has proved disappointingly costly despite promising aspects, the initial evaluation report has revealed.

The project, which ran for 12 months from May 2009, sought to assess alternatives to so-called traditional court processes.

More systematic use of video link between the courts and police stations was the main technology underpinning the pilot, with expectations that it would speed up the criminal justice process and achieve significant cost savings.

The pilot involved two magistrates’ courts and 16 police stations in London and north Kent, though the focus was on London where 15 police stations were involved.

Some processes improved, the Ministry of Justice report said before warning that “the economic model reinforces the message that a roll-out based on the pilot’s performance and parameters is likely to cost more money than it saves”.

“The pilot demonstrated that a video link between a police station and a court could be successfully used to conduct a first hearing in the majority of cases,” the report said, but there were concerns over the high technology costs borne by the pilot.

The economic case for the installation of the project could be improved if the use of technology was broadened to involve witnesses or victims, but other issues would nonetheless have to be addressed.

The report found that the pilot system duplicated some of the processes that already took place in the primary justice system and that “a more integrated and fundamental inter-agency system would probably deliver better efficiency savings”.

The courts involved in the trial also operated extended hours but to achieve efficiencies of any significance other elements in the criminal justice system would also have to be open late too.

The time-management system was also found to lack flexibility, with each hour divided into four 15-minute slots for hearings. “This was inflexible and less efficient that the traditional court process,” the report said.

There were also doubts over whether the volume of cases would be sufficient to generate the planned savings. One particular issue related to custody cases, where transport and cell costs were expected to be reduced in the next round of contract negotiation.

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