Virtual courts delivering quick and efficient justice

Early success of the virtual courts pilot in London could eventually generate £2.2 million in savings over the coming year across the criminal justice system.

Sep 10, 2009
By Paul Jacques
Stuart Cowan

Early success of the virtual courts pilot in London could eventually generate £2.2 million in savings over the coming year across the criminal justice system.

An estimated 15,000 cases are expected to be dealt with using virtual courts during the one-year pilot which is now operating across 15 London police stations. If successful, the London pilot, which is coordinated by the London Criminal Justice Board and the Office for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), could save £2.2 million over the coming year across the criminal justice system.
A wider rollout of virtual courts in other areas across England and Wales could deliver saving in excess of £10 million a year, as well freeing-up police and magistrates’ courts’ time and making improvements to the service given to victims and witnesses. A second pilot site in North Kent has now been launched so that the virtual court concept can be tested in areas with different characteristics.
The virtual court initiative, developed by the OCJR, combines managed video conferencing technology from Cable & Wireless, an online virtual collaboration space – allowing case files to be shared electronically – and secure links to join up the agencies involved. It was announced by Justice Secretary Jack Straw in May.
Under the London pilot, 15 police stations are linked to Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court.
Virtual courts free up police time and ensure crimes are dealt with more quickly and effectively. Cases can be heard within hours of charge via a secure video link between the police station and Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court.
The pilot was initially rolled out at Charing Cross police station in May and already the first hearings in 36 cases have been dealt with through virtual courts – from drink-driving cases where the defendant was sentenced on the day, to more serious offences such as wounding, where the case was sent to the Crown Court.
In one case, the defendant was charged with being drunk and disorderly and appeared at court via video link two-and-a-half hours later. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced less than three hours after being charged.
This pilot follows the success of a 12-week prototype study in July 2007 that was hosted by Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court, South London. 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.
Bridget Prentice, Minister for Her Majesty’s Courts Service, said: “Virtual courts bring swift justice, and in doing so, have the potential to transform how the justice system deals with crimes. It is important that the courts provide for the speedy resolution of cases, and we have already cut by more than a fifth the number of days from charge to sentence in the magistrates’ courts. We are always keen to look at new and innovative methods of increasing the efficiency of the courts, while preserving what is important about the system of justice that they provide to the public.”
Justice Minister Claire Ward added: “Virtual courts are vital in the Government’s drive to deliver swift justice, improving the service given to victims, witnesses and defendants. These pilots help 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.”
As well as speeding up the delivery of justice, the virtual courts pilot will have a number of other benefits including:
•A reduction in delays caused by defendants failing to turn up to hearings and paperwork not being available.
•Freeing-up police time and enabling courts to hear more cases.
•Reducing prisoner movements, so saving money on transport costs and reducing the risk of prisoners absconding.
Andrew Morley, chief executive of the London Criminal Justice Board, said: “We have shown previously through a successful prot

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