Conviction by computer: Ministry of Justice wants defendants to plead guilty online

Do you really trust prosecutors to upload all their evidence?

Crown courtroom. Pic: Shutterstock
A British court room. Pic: Shutterstock

Train fare and telly licence dodgers will be invited to plead guilty from the comfort and convenience of their phones, according to court reform plans unveiled by the Ministry of Justice.

In a paper issued jointly last week by Lord Chancellor Liz Truss MP, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the senior president of tribunals, Lord Justice Ryder, are plans to allow the justice system to take advantage of brand spanking new technologies such as the internet.

The paper, titled Transforming Our Justice System (PDF, 20 pages), sets out how the ministry wants to move England and Wales' court system away from 15th-century paper-based filing systems and to adopt long-overdue digital document handling processes.

“There is still too much evidence being carted around the country on CDs and CCTV tapes, and too many ‘digital’ ways of working rely on people scanning in pieces of paper,” lamented the justices, who added, ominously: “That will change.”

As part of the government's court digitisation efforts, about £270m is being spent between last year and 2019. Among the various items this investment is supposed to deliver is the idea of one single system “to manage criminal cases from charge to conviction, linking the courts with others within the criminal justice system.”

We are told that this all-singing, all-dancing government IT project “will also notify and update victims and witnesses of crime about the cases they're involved in.”

Buried away on page 11 of the paper, however, is this snippet:

We also want to make the processing of summary non-imprisonable offences where there is no clear identifiable victim – such as rail ticket and TV licence evasion, speeding, insurance and fly-tipping – even more efficient by allowing defendants to plead online, saving valuable court time. An early version of this for traffic offences is already being rolled out nationally.

A government factsheet on the “trial by single justice on the papers” system, as is now being piloted with speeding offences, can be read here (PDF).

Private prosecutions for train fare evasion, which are brought by train operating companies, form a significant part of magistrates' court workloads. While the British concept of justice includes full disclosure by both sides – theoretically ensuring that prosecutors are supposed to reveal evidence to the defence which suggests the defendant's innocence as well as his guilt – in reality some prosecutors find it difficult to disclose evidence which undermines their cases.

With both rail companies and Capita, which runs the outsourced BBC telly tax enforcement arm, motivated entirely by profit, it is difficult to see how the obvious flaw in the “convicted by computer” system will not be exploited by unscrupulous prosecution lawyers. It is, after all, hard to challenge prosecutors to produce evidence you know they've got but haven't handed over when your only options are to tap “guilty” or “not guilty” on your phone screen. ®

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