Click here for ‘Guilty’ plea: Automated convictions legislation in Commons today

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By Polly Botsford on

MPs to debate proposed online procedures, virtual hearings and much, much more

The Prison and Courts Bill will be getting its first substantial airing in parliament today.

The bill is part of the government’s bid to transform the United Kingdom’s courts system by allowing the Ministry of Justice to save on expensive court buildings and staff, and prospective claimants and defendants to save on legal and court fees. The net effect of the proposed law could well mean less work for lawyers.

The new legislation seeks to introduce a whole host of reforms including the controversial automated online plea and convictions procedure for certain low-level offences (ones which do not carry any potential for a prison sentence). Defendants will be able to both plead guilty and be convicted online.

The process would be very similar to paying a parking ticket, the government explains:

Defendants will be able to log onto an online system and view the evidence against them before entering their plea.

No lawyers or magistrates required.

Other proposals include changes to the civil justice process with more cases being heard online. This derives from the work of Lord Justice Briggs in his ‘Civil Court Structure Review’ published last year. In it, he said he wanted to design a court: “so as to limit the need to have recourse to lawyers.” Briggs emphasised that this would be the court’s “true distinguishing feature”.

The government sees its bill — which gets its second reading in the House of Commons today — as a win for access to justice in the face of legal aid cuts. Lord Chancellor Liz Truss argues the new procedures will:

[C]hange the way the system works. More things will be done online; there will be a more streamlined process. We will need fewer lawyers to help people navigate through the system.

IT guru Professor Richard Susskind — speaking to Legal Cheek’s Katie King and Tom Connelly in a recent Facebook livestream — argued that lawyers will need to evolve in what they do and how they do it. Elsewhere he has said online courts will lead to an:

[I]ncrease in access to justice (a more affordable and user-friendly service) and substantial savings in costs, both for individual litigants as well for the court system.

He says this compares favourably with the system at present which is: “too expensive, takes too long, is barely intelligible to the non-lawyer, and so excludes many potential litigants with credible claims.” In other words, no (expensive) lawyers required.

However, the Bar Council has warned that quality must trump convenience in the government’s quest for online justice reform. Bar Council chairman Andrew Langdon QC said:

Technology has the potential to enhance our system of justice and to provide greater convenience to some court users. If used correctly, it can also save unnecessary expenditure. But we must ensure that convenience and cost do not override other important considerations. Virtual hearings in criminal cases should remain the exception rather than the norm. Criminal proceedings are generally better conducted when the participants are together in one place. It is essential that there is no diminution in the quality of open justice.

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