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Report finds ‘virtual court’ drawbacks

Report finds ‘virtual court’ drawbacks

Rolling out virtual courts would cost more than it would save, a report has found.

A pilot project, in which defendants appeared via video link from a police station for their first appearance at a magistrates' court, cost £247 more per case than the traditional court process, the study for the Ministry of Justice found.

The year-long scheme also raised concerns over the physical separation of defendants, their lawyers and prosecutors, a higher rate of adjournments, and the perception of delivering "hasty justice" in fixed 15-minute slots.

With 1.79 million defendants proceeded against at magistrates' courts last year, the additional costs would have come to £490.5 million over 2009 if each defendant appeared separately.

While savings were made in prisoner transportation costs, prosecution costs and an improvement in the rate of defendants failing to appear for their first hearing, "the savings made by the pilot were exceeded by the additional costs generated by the virtual court process".

These included high set-up and running costs of virtual technology, higher legal aid costs, additional staffing costs and an additional resource burden on police custody officers and detention officers who oversaw the hearings in custody suites.

"Economic modelling suggests that a roll-out of virtual courts across London based on the structure and performance of the pilot would cost more than it would save over a 10-year period," the report said.

"Even when controlling for some of the most costly pilot variables, delivering a system that makes significant cost savings is still likely to be a challenge."

Defendants also appeared to take the process "less seriously than they would if they appeared in person", the report said.

But despite the concerns, virtual courts "could be successfully used to conduct a first hearing in the majority of cases", it said.

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