Use of the online court - the centrepiece of the government's ambitions for a 'transformed' justice system - will be voluntary, the government has insisted. A published response to the consultation paper Transforming our justice system acknowledges concerns over access to an online process, but says that 'We will not mandate the use of digital channels for public users of HMCTS services'.
Users who decide to 'engage digitally' will have a choice of support by phone or web chat, with options signposted throughout, the response states. As for defendants without access to the web, the response says: 'We will be procuring a network of partner organisations who will work with HMCTS to deliver face to face assisted digital services across the UK for users who do not have access to their own technology.'
Proposals for online trials for criminal offences such as transport fare evasion were published in September last year. The consultation response reveals that 790 submissions were received on 'assisted digital and automatic online conviction'. Of 280 responses to the question 'Do you agree with the principle of a statutory standard penalty process for those who enter an online guilty plea and are content to proceed with the process?' 59% were positive, the government says.
Opponents raised concerns about the lack of judicial involvement in the procedure and the need for defendants to 'have their day in court', the response states. However it says: 'We have considered the responses in full and think it is possible to prosecute low level cases via an automatic online conviction procedure and impose an automated, standard penalty in these cases without compromising the principles of our justice system. As we design the process, we will consider the suggestions made by respondents on the model and for safeguards.'
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 only. 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. 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.'
Dismissing fears about sentencing by 'computer 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 any threat to open justice, the response states: 'We are currently developing a solution which will ensure that the principle of open justice is maintained as we move to digital channels. We will ensure that all interested parties, including victims, witnesses,the public and the press, will have access to case listings and outcomes where appropriate.'
The government’s statement was described as ‘woolly’ by Chancery Lane. Law Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘The Law Society has no objection in principle to the concept of online convictions - it is a natural extension of the current process of pleading guilty by post to certain offences.
‘However, we believe that 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.
‘It would be inappropriate for more serious cases to be dealt with automatically in this way - imagine pleading guilty to a motoring offence because it seems like the easy thing to do and then finding you can't get car insurance or that you face trouble getting a job.
‘If you'd spoken to a solicitor you would have been made aware of the knock-on consequences of the plea and of having a record.’
He added: ‘While there are some positive indications in parts of the MoJ's response to the consultation there simply isn't enough information and as always, the devil is in the detail.’