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Virtual court pilot is ‘not fit for purpose’

28th Sep 2016

A law firm is threatening to boycott  virtual hearings through the government’s Transforming Justice initiative, a pilot scheme which the firm claims is not fit for purpose.

Solicitor Vanessa Francis, owner of St James Solicitors in Exeter, has made an official complaint to the Criminal Justice Board after a virtual court duty scheme was trialled at Exeter Magistrates’ Court.

Francis’s letter states: “I appreciate that today’s hearing was a “test” and no doubt has been arranged in part to iron out difficulties within the system. Let me be clear however – the “system” as it was rolled out today is not fit for purpose and the situation is untenable long term from a defence practitioner’s perspective.”

Since 2009, magistrates’ courts have been able to conduct first hearings of criminal cases by a live link between the court and police stations.

A Law Society practice note states that before a solicitor takes instructions from a client via video link, they must ensure that the consultation cannot be overheard by police officers or staff who may be present outside the video-link room in which the client is situated. However, Francis, who was court duty solicitor on the day the scheme was trialled in Exeter, said she was told that contact with clients at police stations would have to be done by phone, and that Devon and Cornwall police had reviewed rooms where there would be video-link equipment. Ligature points in the rooms meant detainees could not be left unattended, even for private consultations.

“What practitioners want is the opportunity to act properly and fairly on behalf of their clients in accordance with our professional guidelines, and the present system does not deliver that,” Francis stated in her letter.

A spokesperson for Devon and Cornwall police told the Law Society Gazette that “We are currently testing the new custody court system at locations across Devon and Cornwall. The point of this trial is an opportunity to run the virtual court and for all parties to assess how it works for them, to feed back any concerns they may have, and to share anything they feel has worked well, before being launched fully later in the year.”