Professional bodies have reacted sceptically to the government’s plans to introduce online courts, raising concerns that defendants could be placed at a disadvantage.

Reacting to yesterday’s publication of the Ministry of Justice's Transforming our justice system proposals, both the Law Society and the Bar Council said that although modernisation is welcome the plans should be treated with caution.

Robert Bourns (pictured), Law Society president, said making the courts more accessible is a ‘natural step’ but he warned that going to an online court is ‘not the same as shopping online’ – a reference to justice secretary Liz Truss's comment that 'we live in a society where you can apply for a mortgage or a job online, you can do your weekly shop from your home, plan holidays, weddings and parties on the internet. It’s high time our courts caught up.'

Bourns warned that although virtual hearings could save time and money they could also place defendants ‘at a real disadvantage’.

‘Anyone facing a criminal charge needs to be able to access expert legal advice at the earliest possible juncture,’ he said.

‘Defendants in less serious cases – particularly the young – might think that pleading guilty online without seeing a solicitor is a convenient way of "getting it over and done with". This could have serious implications for them if they are found guilty.’

He added that any digitised system must have appropriate safeguards to prevent exclusion of those who do not use or have access to a computer.

Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, chair of the Bar Council, said the council had ‘serious concerns’ about online courts when related to civil money claims.

She said the plans could create a ‘two-tier justice system’ that may result in a system providing a different type of justice to claimants and defendants, depending upon the size of the claims.

Those using the largely ‘lawyerless’ online court process could ‘easily find themselves in litigation with big organisations which can afford to hire their own legal teams', Doerries said.

On measures announced to protect vulnerable witnesses and victims, Doerries said making the justice system a more suitable environment was ‘a step in the right direction’.  

Bourns also noted that the transforming justice announcements failed to mention the availability of legal aid in the future. ‘There must be close and continued engagement between HMCTS and the Legal Aid Agency throughout the programme of reform,’ he said.