Ministry of Justice
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Virtual courts deliver quick and efficient justice

The new virtual court pilot in Lewisham Police Station was formally opened yesterday by Justice Ministers Bridget Prentice and Claire Ward.

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 began at Charing Cross Police Station in May and already the first hearings in 36 cases dealt have been through virtual court – 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.

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, whilst preserving what is important about the system of justice that they provide to the public.’

Claire Ward said:

‘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.’

If successful, the London virtual courts pilot, which is coordinated by the London Criminal Justice Board and the Office for Criminal Justice Reform, could generate £2.2 million in benefits over the year across the criminal justice system. A wider roll out of virtual courts in other areas across England and Wales could deliver benefits in excess of £10 million a year.

Notes to editors

  1. The virtual court pilot was announced by the Prime Minister on 12 May 2009
  2. 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, CPS and probation service based at the court. The defendant’s solicitor can be either at the police station or court.
  3. Defendants will still have access to confidential legal advice and a system of safeguards will be in place to ensure the rights of vulnerable defendants (e.g. those with mental health or learning difficulties) are protected. If necessary, the magistrate or a District Judge will refer the case for a standard court hearing.
  4. 15 police stations will be linked to Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court by August – Charing Cross, Lewisham, Brixton, Kennington, Streatham, Peckham, Walworth, Plumstead, Bromley, Croydon, South Norwood, Sutton, Paddington Green, Belgravia, Bexleyheath. Ten of these sites are already live, with the remaining five going live over the next four weeks.
  5. The government has cut the number of days from charge to sentence in the magistrates’ courts by over 20%, from 61 days in March 2007 to 48 days in December 2008.
  6. The virtual court is an initiative developed by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), the cross-departmental team that supports all criminal justice agencies in working together to provide an improved service to the public. The pilot will enable OCJR to evaluate the costs and benefits, establish whether the potential of the London prototype can be replicated in a broader environment and ensure the concept of Virtual Courts is properly tested before committing funding to a wider roll out.
  7. The London Criminal Justice Board is the criminal justice partnership for London. Formed in 2003, the Board, which covers the largest of 42 criminal justice areas in England and Wales, brings together London's criminal justice agencies (including police, probation, courts services) with other partners such as local authorities to shape and deliver a criminal justice service that befits a world class city. More information can be found at CJS online
  8. For further information contact the Ministry of Justice News Desk on 020 3334 3536.

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