Our justice system is often seen as one of the most important symbols of our country and, quite rightly is the envy of the world with its history and tradition. The significant contribution it makes to society, including economically, means that we should be very proud of it. The right to trial by jury and the fairness of our criminal trials makes it an institution with a formidable reputation across the world.
However, over the years there have been challenges that have needed to be addressed. One of the most important has been how to modernise our justice system without losing these important traditions. In recent years the Crown Prosecution Service and its criminal justice partners have used digital technology to transform the way in which trials are run. Initiatives such as the introduction of digital case files in criminal courts has removed the need for paperwork and court buildings have been adapted to ensure they are fit for purpose when introducing new technology.
As part of this much needed modernisation, a virtual court pilot was run in Devon and Cornwall in 2016/2017 under the leadership of Chief Constable, Shaun Sawyer resulting in significant learning. This means that our justice system was in the best possible position to adapt to the significant challenges posed by covid-19 when all justice systems across England and Wales were asked to stand up their virtual court provision when social distancing measures were introduced with some additional support from my office.
Building on the experience of the pilot, I am pleased to say that our region has been one of the first, outside London, to open virtual courts – a remarkable achievement that was delivered over a few weeks. Ten organisations, including HM Courts and Tribunal Service, have worked together, in partnership, to allow this to happen. As the Chair of the Local Criminal Justice Board (LCJB) that brings together key criminal justice agencies in Devon and Cornwall, it has been inspiring to see virtual courts launched so quickly and efficiently despite teams sometimes working under enormous pressure. I would like to thank everyone involved for pulling out the stops to make this work.
Any crime which requires the defendant to be remanded into custody for the next available court will qualify for a virtual hearing. Defendants will remain in custody, supervised by police until the outcome of the case is determined. Court staff and the judiciary will remain at the court, staying a safe distance from each other, to co-ordinate the hearing.
Cloud-based technology will enable all other court users to join proceedings from a remote location with defence lawyers, probation officers, Crown Prosecution Service lawyers and, where appropriate, youth offending team staff, using video conferencing facilities to participate.
Each police custody centre - including the country’s newest virtual court at Exeter’s Police Station - will link into the reduced number of courts running across Devon and Cornwall. Cases from the custody units in Cornwall (Newquay and Camborne) are now remotely linking into Bodmin Magistrates Court. While Exeter Combined Court can hear cases from the custody units across Devon (Barnstaple, Exeter, Torquay and Plymouth).
A change in law was required to permit video and audio use and in preparation, emergency measures were drafted as part of the new Coronavirus Bill.
Currently, the system has been launched to help with some of the challenges posed by covid-19 and is only available for defendants who have been remanded in custody. Jury trials remain paused due to social distancing measures with work ongoing by a national working group to consider how they might resume safely in England and Wales, including the use of virtual trials and virtual juries.
Despite virtual courts only be used currently for remand purposes, I am confident that the lessons learnt and the new processes designed and adopted will stand us in very good stead for the future as we continue to work with our partners to deliver an efficient and effective criminal justice system.
I am extremely proud that in a matter of weeks we have radically altered the operation of our local justice system through the use of technology. The launch of virtual courts will ensure that the criminal justice system across Devon and Cornwall will continue to operate effectively and safely for all of those involved in it ensuring that victims get justice despite the current challenges.