You are here

Police to decide on 'virtual court' hearings

15 December 2009

It will be up to the police to decide whether a defendant's case will proceed immediately after his arrest in front of magistrates via a video-link under new plans unveiled by the government today.

The so-called "virtual court" pilot started in May in South London, linking Charing Cross police station with Camberwell Green magistrates' court. It was later rolled out to 14 police stations from Belgravia to Lewisham and North Kent.

Until now defendants had to give consent to have their cases heard by video link but the Ministry of Justice's latest amendment to the scheme means that defendants will not be able to object if the police deems the case suitable for an immediate 'virtual' hearing.

The move comes halfway through the pilot, which is due to continue until May 2010, and has prompted warnings from lawyers that defendants' rights could be affected.

The Law Society expressed particular concern that the decision was made before an evaluation of whether the technology was robust enough to process larger numbers of cases and "whether the quality of the justice and the fairness of proceeding in this way have been affected".

Law Society president, Robert Heslett, said it would be preferable to await the outcome of that evaluation before major changes are made.

At the time the pilot was launched, the justice secretary said virtual courts were "exciting as they have the potential to transform how the justice system deals with crimes".

According to Jack Straw, cases would be resolved more quickly, the service to victims, witnesses and defendants would be improved, and up to £10m could be saved if the scheme were extended to the whole country.

Lawyers have already attacked the scheme, saying it would be difficult for clients to communicate effectively with clients and that the savings would be "miniscule".

Categorised in:

Legal Aid Procedures Police & Prisons Wills, Trusts & Probate