• Gloucestershire’s decision to continue with virtual court hearings has been supported at the highest level
  • Following a decision by the Police and Crime Commissioner and Chief Constable,  the Constabulary was one of the few forces not to suspend the hearings, due to their expense.
  • The Ministry of Justice has vindicated the move by announcing it will re-introduce funding for the hearings in Gloucestershire and other forces who also carried-on
  • There are currently more than 1300 criminal cases waiting to be heard in the county. 

Gloucestershire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and Chief Constable have been given a virtual pat on the back by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for continuing to support VRH despite a national steer to stop reviewing cases online.

As the backlog of local court cases went past 1,000 the Commissioner and Chief Constable  decided that suspending virtual remand hearings (VRHs) would delay local justice even longer, placing more strain on victims, witnesses and offenders and compounding an ever growing backlog of cases.

While many other police forces stopped running the hearings online due to their expense, this added to the waiting list in the process.  Gloucestershire was one of the few forces in the country to take an independent stand.

Now, HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) and the Home Office have provided joint funding to support the reintroduction of VRH for all defendants in police custody in Gloucestershire and a number of locations following agreement between the two organisations.

 Over 1300 criminal cases outstanding in Gloucestershire.

PCC Martin Surl, who is also chair of Gloucestershire’s Criminal Justice Board, said: “The NPCC’s advice was aimed at saving money at a time when the public purse has been squeezed like never before by what has been spent on policing the pandemic.

“The Chief Constable and I agreed it was more important to carry on with virtual remand hearings to speed-up local justice and stop the waiting lists from getting any longer.

“We are grateful the Ministry of Justice has recognised our position and has agreed to continue funding the hearings”.

Due to the backlog caused by Coronavirus, there are currently 1,348 criminal cases waiting to be heard in Gloucestershire. Of those, 374 will be trials in the Crown Court, the remaining 974 are cases to be heard by Magistrates.

In a further attempt to reduce the waiting list, the PCC, who bought the former Crown Court in Cirencester when the MoJ closed it in 2012, offered it back to HMCTS free of charge for use as a temporary ‘Nightingale Court’. After lengthy discussions, it started hearing cases again in January.

Video hearings have delivered significant benefits to all court users

Det Supt Richard Ocone, Gloucestershire Constabulary’s Head of Criminal Justice, Crime Command said, “VRH creates a significant demand for Policing in that we have custody of the actual detainees for longer periods of time and have had to employ additional members of staff to facilitate the process. In addition we have had to amend our business practices to accommodate the process.

“All of this was worth it to ensure that victims and witnesses were kept at the forefront of our response to the pandemic”.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, remote video hearings have delivered significant benefits to all court users, by cutting the number of people required to attend court in person and so reducing the risk of transmission.

Video remand hearings – allowing defendants to join hearings remotely from police custody – have increased the resilience of the Criminal Justice System, allowing a vital part of the justice system to continue at a challenging time.

All listing decisions are a matter for the judiciary, who authorise video hearings where they consider them to be in the best interests of justice. Video conferencing technology has led to a range of criminal court hearings being held remotely over video link, including video remand hearings.