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Virtual courts open in Devon and Cornwall

Devon and Cornwall has become one of the first regions outside London to open virtual courts, ensuring that victims will still get justice despite the challenges posed by Covid-19.

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. 

Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland QC, leant his support to the launch. He said: “Technology has already made a real difference to the justice system and developments such as virtual courts are vital in ensuring that victims still get justice during the pandemic. It is testament to the hard work of all involved that Devon and Cornwall have managed to introduce virtual courts so quickly across the region.”

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.

To help sustain the justice system throughout this challenging period, all regions in England and Wales are being asked to stand up their virtual court provision.  Building on its experience of running the virtual court pilot in 2016/17 under the leadership of Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, Devon and Cornwall is in the first tranche of forces to go live.  

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.

Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Alison Hernandez, is Chair of the Local Criminal Justice Board (LCJB) that brings together key agencies in Devon and Cornwall across the criminal justice system.

Praising the 10 organisations that have worked together to launch the virtual courts in a matter of weeks, Alison said: “Our ability to mobilise so quickly is testament to our strong partnership relationships across the peninsula despite working at a challenging time when our working lives have changed so significantly.

“We are in a good position to be able to act quickly during the Covid-19 crisis as we pioneered this in Devon and Cornwall three years ago. It has been heartening to see partners, led by the LCJB, working together so efficiently to ensure the courts are up and running as quickly as possible. Everyone is committed to making this new approach work efficiently for the justice system and local community and I would like to thank everyone for pulling out all the stops to make this work.”

Assistant Chief Constable Jim Colwell for Devon and Cornwall Police, said: “Our partnership was in a strong position to adopt this technological change at an early stage and it has been heart-warming to see how quickly our agencies have worked together to maintain the Justice system during these challenging times.

“Devon and Cornwall police play an active role in this partnership, ensuring that victims, witnesses and our communities continue to see justice being done across both Counties. The lessons we have learned from this, and the new processes we have designed and adopted, will stand us in very good stead for the future, working with our partners to deliver an efficient and effective criminal justice system.”

Victoria Cook, Chief Crown Prosecutor for CPS South West, said: “In recent years the Crown Prosecution Service and its criminal justice partners have taken huge steps in using digital technology to transform the way in which trials are run. This, together with the experience from the virtual court pilot run in Devon and Cornwall, has ensured that the South West Criminal Justice System is in the best possible position to adapt to the challenges we are now facing.

“Virtual Courts will enable the Crown Prosecution Service to continue to deliver justice alongside our police and court colleagues, while ensuring that the safety of all involved comes first and foremost”.

Richard Bennett, Senior Legal Manager for Devon and Cornwall Magistrates’ Courts, HMCTS, said: “Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital to maintain a functioning court system in support of the administration of justice and the rule of law. HM Courts and Tribunals Service is extremely grateful to all the members of the Criminal Justice system who together have made this possible.

“They have delivered at great speed and under tremendous pressure. In a matter of weeks, we have radically altered the operation of our local justice system through the use of this technology. Our new way of working will allow the court to make decisions justly and efficiently whilst ensuring everyone remains safe.”

Chris Spencer, solicitor at Cornwall Defence Solicitors, said: “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 despite the current challenges. I am confident that the technology available will ensure that appropriate advice, representation and support can be given to defendants, some of whom may find themselves in court for the first time.”