Police forces can no longer afford to support HM Courts & Tribunals Service during the pandemic by running virtual remand hearings from their custody suites, meaning that defendants will be required to appear in court in person, the Gazette can reveal.
The news comes as defence practitioners reportedly staged a walkout at Bristol Magistrates’ Court today over court safety concerns. Avon and Somerset Police has stopped running virtual remand hearings.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council confirmed that forces will stop using virtual remand hearings altogether from December.
A spokesperson for the body said: ‘At the height of the coronavirus pandemic police forces took on considerable extra responsibilities, at a significant cost to the service, in order to support the wider criminal justice system. As an emergency provision many forces supported HMCTS with video remand hearings from custody suites.
‘Since then the demand on the service from calls, crime and arrests have returned to the same level as before the pandemic.
‘Chief constables have taken the decision to maintain video remand hearings from custody suites until it is no longer financially and operationally sustainable locally. Forces will stop the use of it altogether from December onwards.’
The NPCC is helping HMCTS to manage the transition and ‘there remains a willingness within policing to continue engaging with HMCTS and other criminal justice system partners to develop the use of video-enabled hearings’.
Avon and Somerset Police was one of the first forces to set up and run virtual remand hearings following a request from HMCTS in March, and has dealt with 1,853 detainees.
Chief superintendent Claire Armes said: ‘We’ve informed our partners at HMTCS and the Crown Prosecution Service that running the virtual remand hearings within our custody suites is no longer financially or operationally viable.
‘The rising costs of running the VRHs have been met from the outset by the police service and the level of supervision required is taking specially trained officers and staff away from their core roles, as well as decreasing our ability to maintain effective custody provision and reducing our cell capacity. On average, detainees are remaining in our custody suites for an additional five hours and 15 minutes when compared to the period before lockdown. At times, we’ve had to resource the VRHs through offering overtime or by re-rostering or cancelling rest days, which is adding to existing pressures.’
Armes said the force ‘remains committed to supporting the alternative arrangements’.
A government spokesperson said: 'Remand cases continue to be prioritised, as they have been throughout the pandemic, to ensure the public is protected and justice is done. We continue to work closely with police leaders to provide them with the support and resources they need. This includes the biggest funding increase in a decade, with up to £1.1bn more than 2019/20.'
Research released in 2018 following a freedom of information request by justice campaigner Penelope Gibbs revealed significant concerns from those on the frontline.
Gibbs said today: ‘There is strong evidence that defendants struggle to participate when forced to appear on video. Defendants' ability to consult with their lawyer is compromised and some studies suggest that defendants on video get harsher sentences. While video risks breaching defendants' fair trial rights, we should be very wary of using it.’