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Video evidence system to be rolled out to four other forces

A pioneering video enabled system is being put to use as part of efforts to keep the courts system going

The system developed by Sussex Police is reducing the amount of time officers need to spend giving evidence in court.

It combines on-camera evidence with an email and messaging system that means officers are notified when court hearings are set to take place - and critically when they are cancelled.

Its use is being stepped up by the force as the Ministry of Justice called for all forces and partner agencies to make greater use of video links to keep the criminal justice system going.

The MoJ revealed that video links are being used in the 157 priority courts that are being kept open during the outbreak.

Video Enabled Justice (VEJ) has been developed over three years through funding secured by Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne. It utilises the court schedule to ensure officers involved in a case are prepared and are taken off duty to give evidence. They can also ensure witnesses as well as victims are also ready.

If the hearing is cancelled, their staff officer is emailed so they can return to duty and do not lose time.

VEJ has been a pilot project and will be rolled out to four other forces next month meaning the system will be working across Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey and Sussex.

A Memorandum of Understanding between the Office of the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (OSPCC) and Lord Chancellor (HMCTS) was signed on 24 February, securing the VEJ service for a wider pilot project in 2020/21. But the outbreak has raised the possibility of a national implementation.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland is understood to be looking at rolling out the technology as part of the government’s contingency plans and the department has updated its guidance on remote hearings as part of its response to COVID-19.

The latest development for the system has been enabling three defence lawyers to use the system from their laptops in “suitable locations” such as their offices.

The results so far are impressive.

Since June 2018, over 10,792 First Appearance Hearings have taken place through VEJ. Of these, 7,270 were First Appearance Video Remand Hearings (4,981 Kent, 2,289 Norfolk and Suffolk). A further 3,522 First Appearance Hearings were ‘in person’ remand hearings (2,248 Kent, 1,274 Norfolk and Suffolk).

Following Senior Presiding Judge (SPJ) approval, live-testing for CPS Prosecutors to prosecute remote from the court took place between the 4 – 10 March 2020. 21 cases were successfully prosecuted during the testing.

There are limits to when the technology can be used by the MoJ is clear that with the country in lock-down, alternatives must be used.

The MoJ said: “We will make best possible use of the equipment currently available; and are working nonstop to update and add to that. Some hearings, the most obvious being jury trials, cannot be conducted remotely.”

Video links are also being used to ensure the wider public and media can witness trials by video links.

Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, said: “An extraordinary amount of hard work has gone into keeping our justice system functioning. Technology is being used creatively to ensure that many cases can continue.”

Sussex is now sharing its results with the MoJ as part of the assessment to see if a national system can be quickly brought into action.

Sussex Police said: “We are currently fully engaged supporting HMCTS colleagues, considering options for wider use of video to support courts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The use of Video Enabled Justice in the South East across Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk and Sussex to facilitate remote working in remand courts and police officers giving evidence by video has proved very effective and this is one option that HMCTS are considering at this time.”

Leaders in every force have switched to video calls to coordinate their response to the outbreak and this development is unlikely to face opposition from forces grappling to keep the system going.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council said: “We’re obviously using phone/video conferencing more so we can meet social distancing guidance.”

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