By Andrew Morley, Non-Executive Director.

This article first appeared in Policing Insight and argues that the introduction of Video Links between Police Stations and Courts provides the opportunity for modernisation of our criminal justice system, and that this needs to be an integral part of any future roll out.

As someone who was part of the team that started the Virtual Court initiative I have been following the current debate around their use with some interest concluding that the opportunities presented by the Virtual Court have yet to be realised and are unlikely to do so unless we do things differently to include taking a whole system approach to implementation.

It seems an age ago (it was 10 years ago) when I sat in a room as one of the participants in a review of the causes of delay in the Criminal Justice system across London; and where we started to explore how technology could speed up the justice process.

From this came the concept of the Virtual Court which would allow for a defendant, charged in a police station, to have their first hearing held over secure video link from the magistrates’ court. This would happen within hours of being charged and if the defendant pleaded guilty, the court could in appropriate cases resolve the matter on the same day.

Whilst we all shared a sense that moving towards a more technology enabled Court was almost intuitive no one involved was blind to the challenges to making this work and this informed a cautious approach to implementation. Our first test being limited to a twelve week proof of concept exercise out of Camberwell Green Magistrates Court. This was intended to test what was possible and critically to see if we could build a consensus around the concept which could then carry through to design.

This caution was extended to the safeguards we put in place. Defendants had to consent to appear, vulnerable defendants were excluded and Magistrates had an override for any case put before them over the Video Link that they considered unsuitable.

The Prototype which included both Custody and Bail cases was judged to be enough of a success to justify further testing. The technology worked. Defendants consented to appear over the Video Link (about 40% of all cases deemed suitable). Delay which was a key success factor was reduced significantly with the time from charge to first appearance being reduced from 14 days to a few hours.

All of this supported a case to the Ministry of Justice for a bigger and more substantial pilot which ran from May 2009 and which was evaluated here and can be summarised as concluding that Virtual Courts do not bring benefit if you continue with what you have but possibly if you do things differently.

Since then there has been an almost organic expansion of Virtual Court schemes and this where the context to the Virtual Court is important as what was tested and appears to be being rolled out misses the real opportunity it provides.

The Virtual Court was never designed as a standalone project but as a facilitator of greater system wide change. The vision was of broadcast quality video link technology supported by digital case files in purpose built ‘courtrooms’ in new police stations. These ‘courtrooms’ would be open for extended hours and designed to be multi-purpose and so allow for the appearance of defendants, accessing legal advice and the giving of evidence by witnesses.

The most significant financial benefits were anticipated as more cases were dealt with online providing for a rationalisation and modernisation of the Criminal Justice estate that looked for opportunities to bring agencies together in an estate that better served the interests and convenience of victims, witnesses, defendants and practitioners. This could include dealing with tricky issues of co-terminosity of agency geographical areas which often undermined smooth administrative arrangements.

As now, there were concerns about ensuring proper safeguards for defendants especially those that were vulnerable. This is why consent was so important in our prototype but we also thought we could do more by extending the technology to the defence community. Providing solicitors access to the Virtual Court technology as part of broader legal aid reform could provide defendants with immediate and accessible advice whilst delivering efficiencies for the defence community.

Whilst there is rightly a focus on defendants we should also not forget the other players in the system, especially victims, and the importance of public confidence.

There was a view that victims would be better served. The evaluation suggested that victims thought timeliness of appearance was more important than physical appearance but the sample was small. However, I do recall a domestic violence case where a case bailed to be appeared on the same day before the Virtual Court resulted in a remand to custody and the victim feeling safer.

One of the other issues at the time was the number of outstanding Failure to Appear Warrants and the risk that some of these presented in terms of re-offending and impact on public confidence if they were to re-offend. The evaluation showed a reduction in Failure to Appear Warrants as a consequence of defendants being put before the Court on the same day and so lessening the risk of a public protection failure.

The Virtual Court was intended to be transformational and was never about just kitting out an interview room with video conferencing technology. Digital case files and extended hours and reshaping the estate were all part of what was intended and with these came the opportunities and the benefits.

Whilst progress has been made on individual elements. The digital case file being the most significant of these. The ambition was undermined by how the money works across Criminal Justice Agencies.

At the time of conception the Criminal Justice System was going through a period of unprecedented partnership working. Local Criminal Justice Boards under the guidance of the Office of Criminal Justice Reform were increasingly adopting a whole system approach to criminal justice with many areas — London being at the forefront of this — talking in terms of a Criminal Justice Service.

This work recognised that greater efficiency required a restructuring of where costs of criminal justice fell with many initiatives recognising that savings could be realised at the back end (Courts, Prisons and Probation) but only with investment at the front end (Policing) and a formula for sharing the efficiencies across the system to reimburse for any costs associated with this.

This conceptually simple but administratively difficult component was never successfully developed and any chance was dashed with the de-prioritization — nationally and locally — of maturing criminal justice partnership arrangements. This leaves us where we are now with policing increasingly looked to foot the bill for initiatives that save money for others. This is of course not limited to criminal justice and with cuts to many services the pressure on policing only increases.

So where does this leave us. I remain a supporter of exploiting technology to support the delivery of a modern, accessible justice system. The increased use of technology is inevitable but if we are to get this right we need to broaden the conversation from just Virtual Courts and individual agency reform, and talk about Criminal Justice reform. We need to be bigger and bolder.

We must take a whole system approach that really recognises that criminal justice is received as an end to end system and not sequential processes delivered by individual agencies. This has to include the physical and virtual elements. Fewer buildings that integrate policing and wider social, health and support services under one roof and could include the Virtual ‘Court Room’ providing for appearances and giving of evidence with Victim and Witness Services and Defence solicitors on site and on hand to provide support and advice.

Delivering this will need a better understanding of the overall cost to the public purse and allowing money to be directed to those parts of the system most likely to deliver the greatest efficiencies. To not be limited by departmental budgets. The devolution of criminal justice arrangements to Greater Manchester could provide a good test area for this.

One final point. I often thought that there was something generational about the Virtual Court project. When working in London I spent many an evening talking to community groups about the London Criminal Justice Board Reform Programme which included the Virtual Court. I was often struck how many who spoke in support of the project were younger and how they were almost never concerned about appearing virtually. For them this felt a natural extension to their technology rich existence and with any debate being around how to get it right and help make the justice system more current. We might benefit from adopting this attitude in deciding how best to move forward.

Andrew Morley was Chief Executive to the London Criminal Justice Board from 2005–2011. He now advises on issues related to public safety and justice. He chairs the Campus Educational Trust and Supporting Justice, and is Senior Visiting Research Fellow to the Institute of Criminal Policy Research.