The UK is attempting to introduce video conferencing technology in one of the most potentially controversial areas of public service – the criminal justice system.
In the London Criminal Justice Board's (LCJB) second pilot scheme due to begin soon at Camberwell Green Magistrates Court, defendants who have been charged in police custody will appear in a magistrate's court for a first hearing through the use of video conferencing technology in a special police custody suite.
The savings on transport and bureaucracy could be as much as £15-million, according to LCJB, allowing staff more time to focus on other crime-cutting measures.
A previous pilot in 2007 achieved an average time of three-and-a-half hours between custody and bail first hearings. The scheme should appeal to witnesses and victims, as there is less risk of bailed defendants not appearing in court, while 73% of prisoners in the 2007 pilot said they preferred the video link to appearing in court.
"Yet it is the apparent appeal to prisoners that has attracted criticism. With defendants being charged and sent to prison without having to leave a police station, there is concern that the gravitas of a court environment won't be effectively replicated over video," says Bryan Thompson, Tandberg area manager: sub-Saharan & South Africa.
Added to this, defence lawyers are worried that virtual meeting with their clients are not secure enough, and breaches in confidentiality could jeopardise their clients' chances of making bail.
While the Legal Services Commission believes the scheme is fair, and will provide a type of legal aid called Advocacy Assistance to defendants involved in the pilot, the Law Society is sceptical of the scheme.
Part of the increased efficiency will come as solicitor's fees are reduced, along with processing time. Not surprisingly, there is little incentive to join a pilot scheme that will involve a large pay-cut. A spokesman for the society warned that solicitors would participate at best with reluctance, at worst not at all.