Online convictions back on the agenda – but safeguards are needed

Stephen Whitehead

Amidst all the discussion of what wasn’t in this week’s Queen’s Speech, it was easy to lose sight of what was in it. Justice system observers were quick to note, however, that the Prison and Courts Bill, originally scheduled to pass this summer, has returned to the agenda: albeit in a much reduced fashion.

Whilst planned changes to prisons have been dropped, the long-anticipated modernisation of the courts is back on the table in a newly proposed courts bill – and likely to prove uncontroversial enough to pass even with the Conservative’s shaky control of the commons.

Assuming that the new courts bill replicates much of the older draft, it’s likely to include plans to offer defendants charged with the least serious offences the opportunity to plead guilty and receive a sentence online, rather than attending court. While for many defendants this will present a welcome convenience, the move to online convictions does pose risks. At the Centre for Justice Innovation, we have argued that any move in this direction requires three key safeguards.

First, online convictions must be subject to independent judicial scrutiny. This is vital to guarantee public confidence in them 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 explained clearly before a plea is entered. For those unsure, face-to-face information must be available – perhaps provided by existing advice services, who can also direct vulnerable defendants to further support.

More broadly, the move to online convictions for minor offences raises a real question about how we view and respond to these offences. If we believe they are such minor infractions as to not even warrant a court date, do we really need to place them on a person’s criminal record at all?

At any rate, we at the Centre will be watching the development of the bill with interest