Jury is out on online justice

Prisons and Courts Bill begins its second reading in the House of Commons with radical proposals for computerising courts

Plans for online criminal courts could be set for a rough ride in Parliament this week.

The Prisons and Courts Bill, which begins its second reading in the House of Commons today, proposes more use of video links and virtual hearings to spare victims of crime the the prospect of meeting their alleged attacker face-to-face.

Justice statue with digital backgroundBut more controversial plans to conduct hearings remotely, and to allow people accused of criminal offences to plead guilty and accept penalties online, have aroused concern among justice reform campaigners and legal professional bodies.

Justice Minister Sir Oliver Heald said that measures in the bill “will mean that more cases can be progressed securely online and through video and telephone conferencing, eradicating the need for many administrative hearings to take place in the traditional courtroom setting and reducing the need for travel”.

Heald added that to ensure justice is seen to be done, “video booths will be installed in courts across England and Wales to allow members of the media and public to observe virtual hearings from court buildings anywhere in the country. Lists and results of cases that have taken place online, as well as those concluded in a physical courtroom, will also be available digitally”.

The Ministry of Justice said that potentially around 8,000 offences a year – 7,000 cases of people travelling without a train and tram ticket, and a further 1,300 of people fishing without a licence – could be handled online, taking away the need to be in a courtroom.

No evidence or research

However, pressure group Transform Justice accused the Government of pressing ahead with proposals “introduced in haste, in many cases without research, evidence or informal or formal consultation with experts and stakeholders”.

A briefing paper claims that, despite the Government’s objective of saving money, most of the proposed changes have not been costed, and the impact not modelled. The move to online and virtual justice “threatens to significantly increase the number of unrepresented defendants, to further discriminate against vulnerable defendants, to inhibit the relationship between defence lawyers and their clients, and to make justice less open”.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers, has argued that virtual hearings in criminal cases should remain the exception rather than the norm. “Criminal proceedings are generally better conducted when the participants are together in one place," it said. "It is essential that there is no diminution in the quality of open justice.”

Bar criticism

The bar strongly criticised the proposal for online automatic convictions. “Inviting defendants to use an online procedure to indicate a plea, or to opt for a summary trial instead of a Crown Court jury trial, risks trivialising potentially serious consequences for those accused of committing offences,” Andrew Langdon QC, chairman of the bar, said.

With the Government's thin majority and the strong representation of lawyers on the opposition benches (though the bill applies only to England and Wales), some of the more radical measures could be set for a mauling. 

 Pictured: scales of justice by Paul Clarke © | paulclarke.com