REMAND prisoners could be forced to make court appearances via a live television link under new Home Office proposals.
A four-week trial would take place at Great Yarmouth magistrates' court, involving prisoners at Norwich jail, Michael Jack, the Home Office minister, said yesterday.
If the experiment is successful, the scheme could be introduced throughout England and Wales. Ministers see it as a way of saving on the costs of transporting inmates to and from courts for hearings. Many police and prison officers are involved in escort duties.
The scheme would also cut the risk of transporting high-security inmates between jails and courts.
The Home Office said it would use television only for routine hearings. Inmates would still go to court for any 'issues of substance'. If prisoners wanted to challenge a decision to leave them in their cells during a hearing, they would have to give a 'good reason'.
Mr Jack said: 'Development of these ideas, in which this pilot scheme is a vital preliminary stage, is still at a very early stage and we shall need to be fully convinced that these benefits will be achieved without prejudicing remand prisoners' rights to appear regularly before the courts.
He added: 'Use of the most up-to-date technology has the potential to make better use of resources in the criminal justice system.'
Jonathan Caplan QC, of the Bar council, said inmates were often reluctant to attend remand hearings as they were forced to change cells on their return to prison.
But civil liberties groups were concerned that the idea could lead to widespread use of television link-ups, even in key hearings.
'It could be the thin end of the wedge,' John Wadham, legal officer with Liberty, said. Even if the plans were introduced on a limited basis, defendants could feel they were being left out of decisions affecting their cases.
In the Great Yarmouth experiment, convicted inmates will be asked to play the part of remand prisoners in mock hearings.
The introduction of live TV links would require primary legislation as current law requires defendants remanded in custody to appear in court in person.