Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court is the unlikely venue for a new pilot scheme – the so-called Virtual Court.
The Virtual Court Scheme is now a daily reality. At Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court cases can now be heard within hours via a secure video link between Charing Cross police station and the court. The pilot has already seen two cases dealt with in this way. In one case, the hearing took place four hours after the defendant was charged with drink driving. The defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced, at the end of the hearing, which lasted 20 minutes.
The new Scheme follows a 12-week prototype study in July 2007 that was hosted by Camberwell Green Magistrates' Court. That prototype study demonstrated that both custody and bail first hearings could take place in a single day with an average time of three and a half hours.
Other London police stations expected to join the pilot over the summer are Brixton, Kennington, Streatham, Peckham, Walworth, Lewisham, Plumstead, Bromley, Croydon, South Norwood, Sutton, Paddington Green, Belgravia, Bexleyheath. An estimated 15,000 cases are expected to be dealt with using the Virtual Court during the one-year pilot. A second pilot site in North Kent will launch in June 2009 so that the Virtual Court concept can be tested in areas with different characteristics.
During the hearing the Virtual Court will sit at both the court and police station. The defendant will be online at the police station, with the magistrates or district judge, legal adviser, Crown Prosecution Service and probation service based at the court. The defendant’s solicitor can be either at the police station or court. The public will be able to see the defendant on a screen within the court. Defendants will still have access to confidential legal advice and a system of safeguards will be in place to ensure those with mental health or learning difficulties and vulnerable defendants' rights are protected. If the magistrates or a district judge feel that the process is unsuitable for a particular case they can terminate proceedings at any stage and refer the case for a standard court hearing.
Claimed benefits of the virtual court scheme include:
It is suggested that the Virtual Courts Scheme has the potential to deliver savings of over £10million a year.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw praised the first virtual court pilot for delivering justice faster and more efficiently, when he visited Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court on 27 May. Mr Straw said:
‘As I have seen first hand today, virtual courts have the potential to transform how the justice system deals with crimes. They are vital in the Government’s drive to deliver swift justice - resolving cases faster, freeing up police time and improving the service given to victims, witnesses and defendants. Although at an early stage, this pilot helps the courts, police, prosecutors, defence lawyers and the judiciary work better together to deliver quicker and more effective justice without any loss of quality. The faster we get justice done, the more we improve public confidence in the criminal justice system as whole.’
The Solicitor General, Vera Baird QC, said:
‘By continuing to examine the virtual courts concept we can ensure that its potential is fully realised but that appropriate safeguards are in place to ensure it is used for the right kinds of cases. It can work for both complainants and defendants, while the public can continue to see justice being done.’
Lord Justice Leveson, the Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales said:
‘The courts offer a public and open system of justice, but it is also important that they provide for the swift resolution of cases. The judiciary are therefore keen to look at new and innovative methods of increasing the efficiency of the courts, whilst preserving what is important about the system of justice that they provide. Using technology such as this to reduce delay must therefore be worthy of further investigation. I welcome this pilot and shall follow its progress with interest.’
Andrew Morley, chief executive of the London Criminal Justice Board, which is coordinating the London pilot, said:
‘The London Criminal Justice Board is committed to testing new ways of improving the public’s experience of the criminal justice system by improving the timeliness and efficiency of the process. We have shown previously through a successful prototype that the technology makes it possible for the court to deal with first appearances over a video link from the police station, and are confident that the pilot will demonstrate significant benefits in terms of efficiency, victim satisfaction and confidence.’