The creation of a regional virtual court is among plans revealed today by justice minister Damian Green to pilot dozens of ‘flexible’ court models.
Five schemes will be trialled in 48 areas. They will include regional virtual courts that will enable preliminary hearings in the magistrates’ court held over videolink to be heard by another court in a different region. For example, a defendant arrested and detained in Lancashire will be able to appear by videolink in Chester.
The Ministry of Justice said the idea is currently being tested in the north-west.
The operating hours of the current virtual court schemes, under which defendants make their first appearance in the magistrates’ court via a videolink from the police station, will be extended.
The use of prison-to-court videolinks, removing the need for defendants to be transported and produced in court, will be increased to cover areas including Cardiff, Southampton, Manchester, Carlisle, Oxford and Reading.
The plans also include controversial proposals to extend the operating hours of magistrates’ courts during the week to hear cases earlier and later in the day, to extend Saturday sittings and also introduce Sunday sittings.
Courts in Chelmsford, Llandudno, Sussex, Manchester and Salford, Liverpool and Knowsley, and Guildford will sit longer on Saturdays. Courts in North Tyneside, Cardiff and Birmingham will sit on Sundays.
The Law Society said the extended court sittings are unnecessary and will increase costs, and solicitors in some of the affected areas have indicated that they will not take part in them.
Green (pictured) made the announcement on a visit to Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan Magistrates’ Court, which has been working extended hours since April and also uses videolinks so suspects can appear in court from prison.
He said: ‘We want the justice system to respond further and more effectively to the needs of victims, witnesses and the local community. I am extremely pleased that thousands more people up and down the country will benefit from flexible courts in their communities.
‘This is one part of our drive to create a swifter, surer and more flexible justice system for all.’
The government originally unveiled its plans in a white paper - Swift and Sure Justice - published in July. It was informed by the criminal justice system’s response to the 2011 summer riots, which saw courts sit round the clock to deal with large number of people arrested.
The MoJ said that the 48 pilots ‘are due to go live in the coming weeks’.
A full list of pilot areas can be found here.