An international justice monitoring group has added its voice to critics of the automatic online conviction system being introduced as part of the £1bn courts reform programme. Fair Trials says the system's 'decision tree' is not enough to ensure defendants understand the full ramifications of pleading guilty to a non-custodial offence.
The group's warning about unforeseen consequences appears in written evidence to the House of Commons justice select committee's courts and tribunals inquiry, published on the committee's website this week.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service has been keen to move cases involving minor offences such as fare evasion online, enabling magistrates to dedicate more of their time on other cases. A 'decision tree' is part of the process, requiring the defendant to accept that they have understood the information presented to them and ensure they are not wrongly pleading guilty.
The Ministry of Justice said the potential consequences of a criminal conviction, such as the disclosure regime, would be 'clearly explained'. However, Fair Trials said the repercussions could be different for different individuals, pointing out that travel, insurance, credit ratings and job opportunities could be adversely affected.
Fair Trials said: 'Will people be informed, for instance, that their regular trips to the US for work may no longer be possible under the visa waiver program? Will individuals know to consult their employers about travel restrictions and any associated costs or inability to fulfil their work obligations before pleading guilty?'
In a separate response to the inquiry, solicitors Rhona Friedman, Sue James and Simon Mullings of the Justice Alliance said that they were aware of an increase in the number of people entering guilty pleas online, 'only to seek to reopen the plea once they have realised or been advised that that they have a defence or that the initial charge is based on inaccurate information'.
Fair Trials said 'assisted digital support' flagged up by the government for vulnerable suspects referred to call centres, postal and face-to-face services. 'These plans place the onus on vulnerable defendants to not only understand their own need for additional support, notwithstanding the fact that in many cases their vulnerabilities may not already have been identified, but also to actively seek out digital support services and legal advice from separate sources, and even incur associated costs,' the group said.
Meanwhile, Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre in its response highlighted the 'chaos' caused by court closures. For instance, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court in London has had to absorb the work of Bow and Lambeth county courts. However, colleagues who have had work transferred from other courts to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch said that files have been lost in the transfer, some hearings had not taken place more than a year later, phones were not being answered and bailiff warrants were still being executed despite warrants being suspended.
Justice Alliance will be holding a vigil at 9.15pm today demanding a moratorium on court closures. 'Selling Off Our Silver' will be projected on to the scaffolding and hoardings surrounding the former Bloomsbury County Court.