Page last updated at 02:20 GMT, Friday, 31 July 2009 03:20 UK

Solicitors boycott virtual courts

Virtual court in operation
Ministers say the scheme will save money and time

A government scheme to allow defendants to be dealt with via "virtual courts" is being boycotted by solicitors who say it is "justice on the cheap".

The initiative lets prisoners face magistrates via video link from a police station instead of in court.

But solicitors in Kent are refusing to take part in the pilot, claiming it is unfair on both defendants and lawyers.

Minister Bridget Prentice said it allowed swifter justice for victims and could save time and money.

The pilot of virtual courts is being rolled out across 15 police stations in south east London. More in Kent had been due to follow.

'Isolating'

Ministers say the scheme is already speeding up the process of justice and could save £10m a year if it is eventually introduced throughout England and Wales.

The BBC's crime correspondent Ben Ando said in one case a man arrested for being drunk and disorderly was charged and sentenced within three hours - a process that ordinarily would take days, if not weeks.

It rather depersonalises the whole process
Robin Murray, solicitor

Ms Prentice told the BBC: "If the victim can see that the defendant has been charged, taken to court and sentenced in a very short period of time that is much better for the victim to see that justice has been done on their behalf."

But solicitor Robin Murray said the system placed lawyers in the impossible position of having to choose between being in court to defend their client or being with them at the police station.

He also told the BBC that it left the defendant isolated.

"He won't be able to see his family and friends who normally would turn up for a court hearing if they wanted to support him," Mr Murray said.

"I think it is an isolating feature - the fact that you are almost taking part in a remote video game.

"It rather depersonalises the whole process."

The Law Society has also argued that the practical realities of virtual courts could put solicitors' safety at risk.

Freeing up cells

It points out that in court, a defendant is in the dock surrounded by security officers, but under the new scheme a solicitor has to sit alongside an unguarded and potentially dangerous individual in a small police room.

There is potential for officers to be able to apply for search warrants via a virtual court
Chief Inspector Simon Davies

Police, however, have welcomed the initiative.

Met Police Chief Inspector Simon Davies, who is based in Lewisham, south east London, said he was seeing "a speedier throughput of detainees" which was "freeing up cell capacity".

He also said the system could be expanded in the future to free up even more police time.

"There is potential, perhaps, for officers to be able to apply for search warrants, for example, via a virtual court and that would save officer time - travelling to court, returning from court," he said.

At present, defendants can choose whether to appear in court via video link or in person, although the possibility of removing that choice is being considered.



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