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‘Second-rate justice’? Solicitors astonished as court services suggests witnesses could give evidence in the back of a van

PUBLISHED: 18:36 18 November 2016 | UPDATED: 18:50 18 November 2016

Waveney MP Peter Aldous is shown inside a van with a videolink to a court, where witnesses coud be asked to give their evidence. Picture by James Hartley

Waveney MP Peter Aldous is shown inside a van with a videolink to a court, where witnesses coud be asked to give their evidence. Picture by James Hartley

James Hartley

Witnesses and victims of crime could be forced to give evidence to a court from a videolink in the back of a van, it has emerged.

The Serco van, where witnesses could be asked to give evidence to courts. Picture by James Hartley The Serco van, where witnesses could be asked to give evidence to courts. Picture by James Hartley

Community leaders and solicitors said they were astonished as court service managers made the suggestion in a bid to solve the growing problem of people in Beccles being unable to physically attend court buildings.

At a meeting held at Beccles Town Hall, they were told those unable to get to Ipswich – where Beccles cases are currently heard – could be asked to go to a location where a Serco van would be waiting for them.

They would then climb into a small, dark booth with a court service crest above a computer screen, where they would then be beamed live to the court to give their evidence.

To the surprise of those present, HM Courts and Tribunals Service representatives even brought an example of the van along with them to demonstrate how it could work.

Lowestoft solicitors Rob Barley (left) and James Hartley have criticised the justice in a van idea. Picture by Nick Butcher. Lowestoft solicitors Rob Barley (left) and James Hartley have criticised the justice in a van idea. Picture by Nick Butcher.

But within hours the idea was being lampooned on social media, with solicitors branding it a “Monty Python-esque farce” and calling it “second-rate justice”.

A HMCTS spokesman said it had tested the mobile video link vans for a small number of hearings in London during the summer but that no decisions had been made on their future use.

Waveney MP Peter Aldous asked HMCTS to come back with a full and detailed proposal by the middle of January to see whether it would be suitable for the area.

“I didn’t know until yesterday it was being brought along,” he said of the van.

“I think they were suggesting for witnesses who may have difficulty in getting down to courts, then there’s the possibility of this facility being made available.

“It would come to an area and witnesses could go into this booth and would be linked up to the court, be able to see the magistrates and give their evidence.

“I would want to reserve judgement on whether it’s a suitable thing for this area once I’ve looked at a full and detailed proposal and got feedback from people in the community.”

He also stressed that the van was one idea mooted in a wide-ranging discussion, which included whether Beccles cases currently heard in Ipswich could instead be listed in Yarmouth and whether public buildings could be used as courtrooms for some cases.

James Hartley, senior partner at Norton Peskett solicitors – who attended the meeting – said: “I’m trying to be as open-minded as I can, but I have to say it’s second-rate justice.

“I find the idea of justice from the back of a van offensive and it brings the law into disrepute.

“Personally I don’t think giving evidence by way of videolink is good anyway, because you don’t see how people react to certain things and I don’t think it’s going to resolve the problems that exist in the system.”

His colleague Rob Barley called the suggestion a “Monty Python-esque farce”.

He added: “They can’t seriously be suggesting our justice system has reached a stage where it’s going to be administered in the back of a van.”

Mayor of Beccles Graham Catchpole, who also attended the meeting, said: “I think it’s got a limited use personally.

“It has to have a driver and an operator. Is it cost-effective to have it in Haverhill in the morning and the other side of the county in the afternoon?”

What do you think of the idea of witnesses giving evidence from the back of a van? Write, giving your full contact details, to andrew.papworth@archant.co.uk

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