As the government plots the wide-scale rollout of virtual hearings through its Transforming Justice initiative, a law firm is threatening to boycott a pilot scheme which it claims is not fit for purpose.
Solicitor Vanessa Francis, owner of St James Solicitors in Exeter, has made an official complaint to the Criminal Justice Board after a virtual court duty scheme was trialled at Exeter Magistrates’ Court earlier this month.
Francis’s letter states: ‘I appreciate that today’s hearing was a “test” and no doubt has been arranged in part to iron out difficulties within the system. Let me be clear however – the “system” as it was rolled out today is not fit for purpose and the situation is untenable long term from a defence practitioner’s perspective.’
Since 2009, magistrates’ courts have been able to conduct first hearings of criminal cases by a live link between the court and police stations. The scheme has already been introduced in Kent and south London.
A Law Society practice note states that before a solicitor takes instructions from a client via video link, they must ensure that the consultation cannot be overheard by police officers or staff who may be present outside the video-link room in which the client is situated.
However, Francis, who was court duty solicitor on the day the scheme was trialled in Exeter, said she was told that contact with clients at police stations would have to be done by phone. She was told that Devon and Cornwall police had reviewed rooms where there would be video-link equipment. Ligature points in the rooms meant detainees could not be left unattended, even for private consultations.
Demanding an urgent review of the matter, her letter states: ‘What practitioners want is the opportunity to act properly and fairly on behalf of their clients in accordance with our professional guidelines, and the present system does not deliver that.
‘Should the facilities being provided to defence solicitors for private consultation with detainees remain at the same unacceptable level, my firm will have to review whether it can continue to agree to participate in the virtual court duty scheme.’
Francis told the Gazette that, as court duty solicitor last week, she dealt with a man who had video-linked from a London police station. ‘I was able to see him on the video link for a private consultation before court with no problem in exactly the same sort of room that Devon and Cornwall are saying is not safe to leave detainees in,’ she said.
A spokesperson for Devon and Cornwall police told the Gazette: ‘We are currently testing the new custody court system at locations across Devon and Cornwall. The point of this trial is an opportunity to run the virtual court and for all parties to assess how it works for them, to feed back any concerns they may have, and to share anything they feel has worked well, before being launched fully later in the year.
‘The local criminal justice board will review all of the feedback from partners, with a view to making the process more effective for everyone involved, in October.’
The Law Society has voiced concerns that virtual courts could place defendants at a disadvantage in communicating with their solicitor.
‘For our members to properly represent their clients in court, it is essential for them to be able to communicate effectively and confidentially with their clients, and that the clients – many of whom are vulnerable people – have confidence that they do so,’ a spokesperson said. ‘The ability of citizens – in police custody and in court – to have access to justice must not be sacrificed to cost-cutting expedience.’
The spokesperson added that a significant problem with virtual courts is the very early stage in the case, just after arrest.