The Government promises that the Prison and Crime Bill, published last week, is ‘historic.’ Many of the headlines focused on eye catching prison proposals but for those of us with a more legal bent the bill’s proposals on online courts were of as much interest.
In outlining the case for an online conviction procedure, where guilty pleas for a small number of low-level offences will be entirely automated, the Justice Secretary says that this will allow “our outstanding independent judiciary to…focus on the cases that matter.” The drive for online court echoes calls we have been making for some time. Anyone who has had the thrill of sitting at the back of a magistrates’ court for even half a morning will see loads of cases pile through the system which are simple, straightforward legal cases— the plea is guilty, the hearing - moments in passing. It is hard to argue, in those cases, for the necessity of a physical court hearing rather an online dispute resolution system. An online process is likely to be not only quicker and cheaper for the court system but removes the requirement for people to waste their time in the corridors of the courthouse, waiting hours for a two minute hearing.
Moving legal advice online
But in the drive towards a better way of resolving the legal case, we shouldn’t forget that a court case is rarely as simple as it seems. One person’s regretful moment of madness could be another person’s longer-term pattern of offending. One person’s next conviction in a long line of many can be another’s person’s employment prospects ruined.
So, the challenge is to use technology that strengthens rather than dilutes the rule of law and which enhances the people’s access to justice. So, for example, it is vital that, as we place court cases online, we must move access to legal advice online too. People must know the potential consequences, for example, of pleading guilty to a criminal offence online. A criminal record can make a real difference to people's future employment prospects and that's why people need access to independent legal advice as much online as they do in a physical court.
Advice and support online
Moreover, as we move cases online, we must also acknowledge that we have a real opportunity to address the underlying reasons why those cases may be there in the first place. An online system provides a fantastic opportunity to use the court case to refer people into services which may help them address issues such as debt, employment and substance misuse which underlie their offending. There are already advice and support services in courts in some areas that try to make these types of referrals. Surely we could be replicating that online and make it accessible to all?
Finally, the Bill now before Parliament allows that the offences that will go into the online system are to be specified in secondary legislation. It will be vital that scrutiny is given to which offences are to go through the online conviction process. And there must be answers to questions such as why are these offences coming to court at all, and not resolved through out of court disposals, if these cases don’t matter that much? If these cases are really trivial, why do they attract a criminal conviction?
Therefore, while it is the right to move simpler cases online, that shouldn’t diminish our responsibility to ensure that, in those cases, defendants know their rights, know the legal consequences of their options and, where necessary, are given the help and support to move away from offending. Even when cases are legally simple, we should recognise that all cases matter.