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Opinion:

Criminal justice: Police want to fight crime, not run courts

Virtual courts have been heralded as a route to quicker and more effective justice, but Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice says there is no support within policing to oversee the running of these courts.

I do not find the role of Cassandra, who was cursed to utter prophecies that were true but not believed, particularly pleasant, but every time there’s new criticism of the digital court reform programme, the more Cassandra-like I feel. Transform Justice first expressed disquiet about the programme in February 2017 and most of our concerns have not been allayed. 

 Transform Justice first expressed disquiet about the [digital court reform] programme in February 2017 and most of our concerns have not been allayed

Last year, the National Audit Office exhorted Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS, the courts service) to improve their communication with other public sector organisations that would be impacted by the reform programme. One of these is the police. Having recently heard a police officer make a presentation on ” Video Enabled Justice” (the practice of having courtrooms in police stations connected by video to the magistrates’ court), I’m not sure greater communication has inspired conversion to the cause. 

What is a virtual court? 

The big idea is that defendants who are charged and detained by the police go into a “court-room” in the police station for their first court hearing and appear in the magistrates’ court via a video link. The defence advocate can sit with the defendant in the police station or communicate with them via video from the court (they mostly do the latter).

This idea was piloted in 2010 and did not go well. The government evaluation showed that these “virtual courts” did not save money overall and defendants got more negative outcomes; fewer were represented, those convicted got harsher sentences. This research was well and truly buried (try to find any government citation since publication), presumably because people didn’t believe or want to believe the findings.

So the same idea (having all defendants detained by the police appear from policy custody for their first hearing) has since reared its head in two places: 

• It was an integral part of the design of the HMCTS digital court reform programme as conceived in 2016. 

• Katy Bourne, PCC for Sussex separately bid for funding for a “virtual court” programme from the police innovation fund, which is managed by the Home Office. The Home Office awarded £11 million to the video enabled justice project, led by Katy.

 Unfortunately there never has been and probably never will be police support for the idea of police-run courts

Police concerns

Unfortunately, there never has been and probably never will be police support for the idea of the police running courts.

One key concern is financial. HMCTS always seems to have assumed that the police will pay the extra costs out of their own pocket. This was never realistic, even less so now the police are so strapped for cash. To operate a “court” within the police station, the police have to reserve and equip not just a room for the actual hearings, but several rooms in which defendants can have a video consultation with their lawyer prior to their court appearance. They also need extra staff to operate the actual video links, to sit in the video room during the hearing and to accompany defendants to and from cells. The police have estimated that it would cost £28.1 million a year to run video courts from every custody suite, excluding the set up costs of £10.4 million. While the police would pick up a big tab, HMCTS would save on the costs of transport, court cells and security staff (though I doubt HMCTS gain as much as the police lose).

 The police have estimated that it would cost £28.1 million a year to run video courts from every custody suite, excluding the set up costs of £10.4 million… I doubt HMCTS gain as much as the Police lose

Kent was one of the original pilot sites in 2010 and continued with video links from police stations into the Medway magistrates’ court. But in 2017 the Kent Criminal Justice Board (quoted in an NPCC document I found online) rebelled against the police having to shoulder the costs:

“As a Board, we feel it is our responsibility to highlight to you that Kent Police cannot continue to sustain the financial cost of delivering Virtual Courts for the benefit of the CJ system in Kent as a whole. We would ask that urgent consideration is given to the long term future of Virtual Courts with consideration to a financial arrangement that does not create a disproportionate burden to any single agency”.

The financial issue has still not been resolved and many forces are put off by this. Police forces in the South-West trialled virtual courts but abandoned them, partly due to the costs.

The risks of virtual courts

Is there any benefit for the police in running courts? It’s useful for police officers to be able to give evidence by video in court hearings, but they can do this from a quiet conference room. I don’t think they ever appear from the “court room” in the police station used by defendants.

Police hate running video courts because they feel it is not their job, and in running courts they increase the risk of someone coming to harm on their premises. The risk of a suspect or defendant self-harming or committing suicide is ever-present in every custody suite. A lot of officers’ time is spent mitigating and trying to avoid that risk. Running a court within the police station means defendants are in police custody for much longer (sometimes extra nights in cells) and that the custody sergeant is responsible for every extra hour. Police are particularly concerned about two situations: 

 Police hate running video courts because they feel it is not their job, and in running courts they increase the risk of someone coming to harm on their premises

• Defendants have to be left on their own in a room while they talk in confidence to their lawyer on video just before their court hearing.

• Defendants who have an upsetting hearing may react to it badly. In a court, every defendant is surrounded by others in the court room and has a post-hearing consultation with their lawyer. The lawyer (and family in the public gallery) can try through talking and through their body language to console an upset defendant. But in video courts defendants seldom get a post court consultation with their lawyer and even if they do, they are just a face on a screen.

Though it is not their greatest concern, police are also aware that defendants who appear on video from the police station have little idea what is going on in their hearing. A police officer said that defendants often left the police “court room” asking the detention officer what had happened in their hearing.

If police wanted to run courts, I’m sure they would be happy to pay for them. But one of the biggest problems for virtual courts is that no custody staff, including the civilians, want to run a court within a police station. Working in custody is already the Cinderella service for the police (apparently its status is not high) so no custody sergeant wants to make it even more difficult to recruit and retain staff. One police force apparently solved the problem by hiring completely new staff to operate the police station court – recruited from the courts service!

We have lacked data and research on video hearings. The video-enabled justice project in Kent is currently being evaluated. But I doubt anything will change police antipathy to running courts.

This blog is republished with kind permission. The original can be seen here


One Response to “Criminal justice: Police want to fight crime, not run courts”

  1. benjamyn112 benjamyn112 says:

    Perceptive as ever. An aspect not considered is the technological. As a magistrate I regularly deal with video evidence, often from prisons and occasionally from police stations. In my personal experience (and I cannot speak for the wider magistracy or judiciary as a whole) there are often technical glitches. It is clear that the witness can often not hear properly, nor see who is asking any specific question and I wonder the extent to which they would say that they had participated in their hearing.

    For straightforward largely administrative maters this isn’t too important but very few hearings are that simple. Almost inevitably something arises: a query on a proposed bail condition, clarification of a point somewhere and so on.

    The one area where the video does come into its own is in contested violence cases where the defendant cannot see the alleged victim, nor any of the public, thereby depriving them of an opportunity (which they may or may not wish to take) to attempt to intimidate anyone.

    So quite aside from the costs and the allocation of those costs, overall, I am not persuaded based on my experience that “it works” in the interest of justice.

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