The Centre for Justice Innovation welcomes the introduction of technology to modernise the court process and make it more accessible. In a new consultation paper “Transforming our Justice System”, the Ministry of Justice lays out its vision for a justice system that’s proportionate, accessible and just. The paper proposes reforms for various parts of the justice system:
- Criminal courts including digitisation of the the criminal justice system and problem-solving courts
- Family courts reform to be led by the welfare of children and
- Civil courts and tribunals
Our response to the consultation focuses on the digitisation of criminal courts and problem-solving courts. While we welcome the proposals to modernise our courts, our repsonse also highlights the challenges that come with the use of technology in our courts.
An online conviction system could potentially enhance a defendant’s access to justice as long as there are safeguards in place that can ensure the process is fair, gives a clear understanding of the process and a voice for the defendants. Moreover the system should be subjected to a review and should provide basic legal information along with instructions on how to use the system. Lastly, this provides an opportunity to rethink how low-level offences are penalised more generally.
What is the online conviction system?
The Ministry of Justice is proposing an online conviction system for some routine, low-level offences with no identifiable victims such as rail ticket and TV licence evasion – that helps resolve the entire case online. Defendants can log on to see the evidence against them before entering a plea.
If they plead guilty, they can opt in to (or opt out of) the online system which allows them to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine.
At the Centre for Justice Innovation we welcome the proposals to make the justice system more accessible but the proposed online conviction process must have additional safeguards.
First, we believe that the introduction of the online conviction and statutory fixed fine process must be subject to independent judicial scrutiny. This is vital to guarantee public confidence in it and the anticipated expansion of online systems in court more broadly. This scrutiny could be similar to that already provided in out of court disposals, where magistrates’ panels scrutinise case samples.
Second, it must be fair to defendants who do not and/or cannot engage with the online service. They must be able to enter a guilty plea at their first physical hearing and still be entitled to full credit for an early guilty plea.
Third, the system must feel fair and defendants must be given a clear understanding of the process. The system and accompanying online guidance needs to be written in plain English and the consequences – both direct and indirect (for example, on employment) – of a guilty plea must be should be explained clearly before a plea is entered.
Fourth, the assisted digital support that is suggested in the consultation misses a vital opportunity to spread high quality legal expertise and advice more widely than ever before through better use of technology. Rather than making the court process cheaper through technology, as is implied in this consultation, we should be increasing access to justice and ensuring that the innovation works for everyone. Therefore, we argue that the online support channels which will form part of the conviction and statutory fixed fine process should encompass the provision of basic legal information for all defendants, using combinations of artificial intelligence and human advice, and not just the provision of digital assistance in navigating the use of the online system, as is proposed.
In addition, defendants using the online system should also be able to access legal information through other offline channels, including face to face. Both online and offline legal advice and support models must be independent and seen to be independent of HMCTS.
We also welcome the continued commitment to problem-solving criminal and family courts in the consultation, which seek to address many of the factors that lead to people coming back to our courts time and time again. We would, however, note that while problem-solving is being explored in a number of sites in England and Wales, without a coordinated effort to document and evaluate those projects, they will not represent a meaningful trial of the approach.
Our recent report Problem-solving courts: a delivery plan sets out an affordable, practical and sustainable plan for developing a suite of problem-solving pilots, which may be of interest to ministers and officials considering this issue.