Police forces spent millions of pounds helping HM Courts & Tribunals Service with video remand hearings during the pandemic, figures obtained through freedom of information requests have indicated.
The government wants to expand the use of video remand hearings and is legislating for Prisoner Escort and Custody Service officers to manage them in police stations so that overstretched police resources can be directed elsewhere. The government admits that without the legislation, some or all police forces will not take up video remand hearings in any future rollout.
However, figures obtained by Transform Justice, a pressure group, cast fresh doubt on whether police support will be forthcoming.
As an emergency provision during the pandemic, forces supported HMCTS with video remand hearings from custody suites but pulled their support altogether from December because they could no longer afford to support it.
Transform Justice sent FoI requests to every police force for the cost of providing this additional support between March and December 2020.
Total costs were provided by 14 forces, which add up to £1.8m. Four forces provided partial costs, which still add up to a hefty £358,371.
The government has no plans to reimburse costs incurred between March and December last year.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice and Home Office agreed a joint funding arrangement to support the reintroduction of video remand hearings at a number of locations. The agreement ended on 31 March.
Video remand hearings are still used when defendants are suspected or confirmed to have Covid-19. Three forces continue to use them for all hearings.
A government spokesperson said: ‘Video remand hearings continue to be used and we are working with forces across the country to ensure the criminal justice system can benefit from them into the future.’
A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said: ‘The NPCC’s position remains unchanged, in that video remand hearings will not be rolled out across forces. In line with NHS England advice, they should be used in an emergency should a defendant test positive for Covid-19. It remains the discretion of each chief constable as to whether a force adopts more extensive use of video remand hearings.It remains the discretion of each chief constable as to whether a force adopts more extensive use of video remand hearings.’
Transform Justice asked what estimate forces had made of the total annual cost should they be required to operate video remand hearings in future. A handful of forces replied, with estimates ranging from £60,000 to £748,000.
Penelope Gibbs, director, said: ‘In the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, the government gives the impression that the cost of video remand hearings is £15m a year. But these new figures from police forces show that the cost of making hard-pressed police into court managers is much greater. There is also evidence that putting defendants on video prejudices their effective participation and impedes their communication with lawyers. Those scrutinising the bill should ask serious questions about both the cost and justice delivered by video remand hearings.’