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Fast-track justice is virtually ridiculous

PUBLISHED: 12:35 06 August 2009 | UPDATED: 16:21 07 September 2010

A PIONEERING virtual court system that is helping to convict criminals at Paddington Green station in a matter of hours is being boycotted by solicitors. Of the 21 firms in Westminster that are eligible to take part in the 12-month pilot o

Sanchez Manning

A PIONEERING virtual court system that is helping to convict criminals at Paddington Green station in a matter of hours is being boycotted by solicitors.

Of the 21 firms in Westminster that are eligible to take part in the 12-month pilot of the virtual courts launched across London in May, only 11 have agreed to participate. The figures were published two weeks ago in the Law Society's magazine.

Defendants who elect to be tried through a virtual court will remain at the police station and be linked to the court proceedings through a video camera.

But solicitors who have objected to the change say they are worried about the lack of security if a client reacts violently when a court decision goes against them.

A criminal solicitor who is based in Harrow Road, but preferred not to be named, said: "The large majority of firms are concerned with security issues. In a real court you have a defendant who is in the dock or behind a locked door, so there's obvious protection for the solicitor.

"But with the virtual courts there's no such protection and if defendants get a result they're not happy with, you're sat right next to them."

But such fears have been dismissed by justice secretary Jack Straw who told a legal magazine that with "quite large" custody and police officers around it was unlikely that a defendant would attack their own solicitor.

The new scheme has also received support from local police after a drug dealer, suspected to be operating on the Lydford Estate, Maida Vale, was brought to justice in a day.

Andrew Lewis, 29, was arrested in the early hours of July 30 after being caught with a stash of cocaine close to the estate in Fernhead Road.

In only the second case of its kind at Paddington Green station, within 24 hours he had been charged and convicted for possession of a Class A drug through a video link-up with Camberwell Magistrates' Court.

Lewis was ordered to pay a fine of £100 plus £15 in costs.

Police said the use of the virtual court had allowed justice to be dealt with in a few hours, rather than the weeks or months it would usually take under the old system.

West Safer Neighbourhoods Team Insp Dan Thorpe, who heads up the Maida Hill taskforce that led the investigation, said: "The purpose of the virtual courts is to speed up summary justice and make better use of the available technology to improve the criminal justice system for victims and witnesses.

"As can be seen in this case, results can normally occur in a matter of hours rather than weeks or even months if the case is bailed to court."

He added: "Great progress was made last year which targeted drug dealing in this area and this is another example that drug use and all that comes with it will not be tolerated in Westminster."

The Ministry of Justice claim that, if successful, the London virtual courts pilot could generate £2.2million in savings across the criminal justice system.

In addition, the department said the scheme has cut the time between charge and sentencing at magistrates' courts from around 48 days to just a couple of hours.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "Virtual Courts present real opportunities to speed up the justice system and improve its efficiency, without compromising the quality of justice. This will benefit both defence practitioners and defendants, and free up resource currently used for prisoner movements.


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