The Government are piloting “virtual courts” that allow magistrates’ courts in London to hear cases where the defendants appear by live video link from a police station to the court. A second pilot will begin in Kent in the near future. The pilots will be subject to robust evaluation. If successful, this technology could be used in other parts of the country. There are no other proposals for courts to sit outside a formal courtroom.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. What has been the reaction so far of the Law Society and the Bar Council to this proposal? In particular, can he summarise the position of those practising in the criminal courts, and can he respond to the criticisms that have been voiced by both the Law Society and the Bar Council?
My Lords, we have been working to actively engage defence practitioners, normally solicitors, and their representative bodies in the development of the pilot. We particularly appreciate the constructive input provided by practitioners and the Law Society itself. There has been a good response from defence solicitors wishing to participate in the scheme and in the rota. However, the representative bodies have expressed some concerns about elements of the pilot. These include concerns to ensure that the process is fair for the defendant; concerns about practical and policy issues around the process, such as the health and safety of defence representatives in the police station; and concerns about the operation of the legal aid system for virtual court hearings.
We are very alive to these concerns. We are committed to ensuring that the process is fair to defendants, works effectively in practice and provides value for money for the taxpayer. To ensure fairness, the court ultimately maintains control of whether to proceed with the virtual court.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that in many areas outside the big cities, such as shire counties, where very few real security issues arise in magistrates’ courts hearings, summary justice could at last be brought much closer to local communities by holding hearings in community facilities, such as school halls and village centres? Does he agree that kind of approach would save the cost of building centralised and inconvenient palais de justices, which are often no more than an exhibition of an edifice complex?
My Lords, as always the noble Lord comes up with a fascinating idea. We have no proposals in the manner that he describes. He will know that the community justice schemes that began in north Liverpool and Salford have now been extended to 11 more venues. Apart from the north Liverpool one, which was in a special building, the others are all in the ordinary magistrates’ courts. Can I take his ideas back to the department and write to him in due course?
My Lords, the magistrates’ courts have been consulted already and will be consulted again when the pilots are completed in about a year’s time. The courts, whether with a magistrate or a district judge sitting, have the power to decide whether it is suitable for a particular case to be heard in this way. If they decide that it is, but change their minds, then they can say so and the case stops there and then.
My Lords, without in any way detracting from the relevance of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, is it not the case that part of the answer with regard to unnecessary delay in the administration of justice in magistrates’ courts lies with the need for a greater number of district judges sitting as stipendiaries? Will he give an undertaking that appointments will be made in such numbers, and for such places, as are necessary in the circumstances?
My Lords, are there proposals to have any more domestic violence courts where both the criminal and the family side of domestic violence are held under the same roof? These courts benefit both the litigant who has been subject to violence and also the defendant.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for her question. As I understand it, those courts have been a success where they have been tried out. I do not know what the proposals are for the future. I shall write to her with that information.
My Lords, in London, that is unlikely to be the position. The solicitor is with the accused in the police station. The court remains open to the public; it is a public hearing. The solicitor sits with and takes instructions from the accused in the normal way. It is very early days, but up until 25 June, some 19 cases were dealt with in this way, of which 75 per cent were guilty pleas with immediate sentence. This brings justice, but quick justice, and seems to be an experiment worth carrying on with.