The Bar Council has added its voice to concerns over proposals to introduce online courts, warning that the quality and reputation of the justice system must not suffer.

Members of parliament will today gather for the second reading of the Prisons and Courts Bill – the first opportunity for MPs to debate the bill’s main principles.

Under the proposed law, almost any party to a criminal court hearing will be allowed to take part by telephone or video link. The bill also proposes introducing ‘automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty’ for certain summary-only criminal offences.

The plans have already come under fire from pressure group Transform Justice. A briefing paper published by the charity last week said: ‘The criminal court proposals seem to have been introduced in haste, in many cases without research, evidence or informal or formal consultation with experts and stakeholders.’

In a statement today Chairman of the bar Andrew Langdon QC said virtual hearings should remain the ‘exception rather than the norm’.

‘Technology has the potential to enhance our system of justice and to provide greater convenience to some court users. If used correctly, it can also save unnecessary expenditure. But we must ensure that convenience and cost do not override other important considerations,’ he said.

‘Defendants must be offered a genuine choice. They must also be made aware of their right to consult a lawyer,’ Langdon added, warning that the proposals could risk ‘trivialising’ certain crimes.

He added that although certain witnesses benefit from being able to give evidence remotely, the physical presence of victims, witnesses, juries, defendants, judges, lawyers and the public is fundamental to how justice should be delivered. In an interview with the Gazette earlier this year Langdon also spoke of the benefits of continuing face-to-face proceedings in court.

In a briefing to MPs ahead of the second reading, the council has also warned that:

  • Issuing convictions online should be limited to low level offences, including those that would usually attract a fixed penalty notice.
  • The secretary of state should not have the power – without wide consultation – to determine offences for which on-line convictions can be secured.
  • Reforms to the roles and qualifications expected of HMCTS staff who will be authorised to take on more case management functions of a court or tribunal lack clarity.