Plans to allow people charged with criminal offences to opt for an online resolution are to go ahead despite warnings about the creep of ‘sentencing by computer’.
Announcing the plan last week, the Ministry of Justice played down fears about lack of representation and transparency in the proposed ‘automatic online conviction’ system.
The Law Society described the proposals, set out in the government’s response to the Transforming Our Justice System consultation, as ‘woolly’. President Robert Bourns said: ‘The Society has no objection in principle to the concept of online convictions. However, we believe the offences recommended for an online conviction pilot programme will be few in number and not provide an adequate test for the system’s robustness.’
The government proposes testing online convictions with the summary offences of fare evasion and possession of an unlicensed rod and line. It insisted the process will be voluntary: ‘Only defendants who choose to plead guilty, offer no mitigating circumstances and, crucially, opt in to the automated process will be able to be prosecuted through this procedure.’
It adds that primary legislation will limit the offences which may be prosecuted via the automatic online conviction procedure to specified summary, non-imprisonable offences. ‘The actual offences would be specified in secondary legislation; in choosing whether to specify an offence, regard will be had to the discretion exercised in terms of sentencing.’
Dismissing fears about ‘sentencing by algorithm’, the response states: ‘The detail of the penalty will be set out in secondary legislation and the amount of the standard penalty to be imposed on an offender will be specified for each offence.’
On transparency, the response promises: ‘We will ensure all interested parties will have access to case listings and outcomes where appropriate.’