Defence solicitors have scuppered the government’s plan to extend the virtual court scheme to Kent by boycotting the initiative.
No Kent solicitors have agreed to take part in the scheme, which they say is not in the best interests of clients or defence lawyers. Two London firms did sign up for the Kent pilot, but both have now withdrawn.
News of the boycott came as Cable & Wireless Worldwide announced it has signed a multi-million-pound agreement with the Office for Criminal Justice Reform to provide video-conferencing technology for programmes across the criminal justice system, including the virtual court.
The virtual court project, which enables defendants to make their first appearance before the court via video-link from the police station, is being piloted for 12 months at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court in London.
The project began last month at Charing Cross Police Station and was due to be rolled out in mid-June to link Ebbsfleet Police Station in Kent with Medway Magistrates’ Court.
But the Ministry of Justice said the schedule has been put back to mid-August to ensure there are no ‘technical problems’. It refused to confirm or deny that it had been unable to persuade any solicitors to take part.
Robin Murray, senior partner at Kent firm Robin Murray & Co, said solicitors were concerned about inadequate measures to safeguard their own security, the fairness of the remote scheme for defendants and the payments they will receive for the work.
‘Solicitors might look at it again if these issues are addressed properly, but while the background noise is a raging battle over best value tendering it’s unlikely that they will want to cooperate with the government,’ he added.
Greg Stewart, a defence representative at local implementation meetings in London, said the scheme had not been popular with clients, with only two or three cases using it each week.
‘Defence solicitors don’t see the benefit of it for them or their clients and it has not been popular with the police either, which is what we predicted,’ he said.
‘London practitioners would do well to take note of what the Kent solicitors have done and reassess whether they want to participate in the pilot.’
The London scheme has now been extended to seven police stations, with a further six due to be included by the end of August. An MoJ spokeswoman said preliminary reports indicate that ‘all is going well’.