Government plans for virtual court hearings and online guilty pleas for criminal offences are poorly costed, based on weak evidence and have not been subjected to proper consultation, a national justice charity says today.

In a briefing on the courts reforms proposed in the Prisons and Courts Bill introduced last month, Transform Justice accuses the government of failing to justify its claims that new digital processes will improve the justice system – and of ignoring research suggesting the contrary. 

‘Very few measures in the whole bill have been subject to formal consultation,’ the briefing states, noting that this contravenes agreed best practice in government policy-making.

Transform Justice, set up in 2012 by former magistrate Penelope Gibbs, stresses that it is not opposed to new technology as such. ‘No one would disagree that the courts need to be brought into the digital age,’ the briefing states, suggesting that files and information should be available in digital form and that defendants could be sent emails and texts reminding them to come to court. 

However it says many of the government’s proposals are based on flimsy evidence and few have been subject to rigorous external scrutiny. ‘It is asserted that they will make the system more just, proportionate and accessible, but without any supporting research or data, and without citing research which may suggest the contrary.’

Evaluation of a pilot virtual court, for example, concluded that the process was more expensive, could lead to more guilty pleas and longer sentences, and impeded communication between lawyer and client. 

The briefing questions the need for virtual hearings in the first place. ‘There is not and still won’t be (even after closures) a shortage of courtrooms. Many defendants and witnesses would prefer to appear in person than remotely.

‘If the needs of witnesses were better met in court, they would be less stressed. Equally, we question the necessity of the police detaining so many low-level offenders, thus necessitating either a virtual hearing from police custody or an expensive trip in a secure van to the court.’

On the proposed system to allow people charged with non-imprisonable offences to plead guilty and accept a penalty online, the charity says: ‘Every conviction carries a criminal record. The risk of an online system is that those charged will not understand the full implications of pleading guilty.’

Other concerns include the cost of the system, which the briefing says has not been assessed, and its affect on open justice, where it says the proposals are ‘somewhat vague’. 

‘The new proposals are an attempt to graft existing open justice principles onto new structures, but there has been no research and no consultation on them, so we have no means of gauging their impact,’ the briefing states. 

It states that ‘no reason has been given for the lack of open policy making in regard to many of these proposals’ and says that the government could have put the bill forward for pre-legislative scrutiny. ‘It has chosen not to do so.’

The Prisons and Courts Bill begins its second reading on Monday.