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Virtual courts must be staffed soon

The Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly says slow-moving legislation has resulted in unacceptable delays for victims of crime and placed an unfair burden on policing.

Devon and Cornwall Police was one of the first forces in the country to introduce Virtual Remand Hearings (VRH) at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.  The virtual courts have been staffed by serving police officers in order to keep justice moving during the pandemic.

However, it was always intended that court staff would take over from police officers at the earliest possible opportunity – which is yet to have happened, despite assurances from the Ministry of Justice.

Earlier this month Justice Secretary Robert Buckland MP, told parliament the matter would be addressed in primary legislation “as early as possible in 2021” to allow court appointed contractors to staff the courts, rather than police officers.

However, Devon and Cornwall Police has taken the decision to withdraw officers from the virtual courts at the end of November, saying it places “a disproportionate resource and risk management burden on policing”.

 Commissioner Hernandez says she has grave concerns that without court staff operating the virtual courts, victims of crime will face unacceptable further delays in getting justice.

She said: “A small number of highly-trained police custody officers, who should be on the front line of policing, are having their valuable time completely consumed by the virtual remand courts, leaving them exhausted due to the amount of work involved.

“We have given this scheme more time and resources than most, being one of the first to sign up and among the last to pull out, a decision I asked to be made.

“But unless there is a commitment to getting these courts manned in the very near future, we are going to see less policing resources on the frontline supporting our communities at a time of heightened need.

“In addition to the resource burden on policing for virtual remand courts, there is a backlog of Crown and Magistrates court cases that means justice is getting delayed.

“Imagine a young victim of sexual abuse who has summoned up the courage and bravery to speak to police about their terrible ordeal.  These cases can regularly take years to get to court in non-Covid times and the nature of such investigations puts great strain on victims.

“Any added delays could make the difference between them proceeding with the case or dropping it due to the time and huge emotional drain involved.  That would be totally unacceptable.”