The government’s plans for an inline criminal court have provoked controversy and criticism. The harshest critic is justice charity Transform Justice, which has attached many aspects of the government’s proposals in a statement released today.
Among the key concerns that Transform Justice has expressed is that “very few measures in the whole bill have been subject to formal consultation,” which runs counter to accepted best practices in the creation of government policy. In its briefing, the charity also criticises the proposals for being poorly-costed and for having used weak evidence as its basis.
The charity also questioned the governments claims that the proposals, which are contained in the Prisons and Courts Bill, would improve access to justice and the quality of justice. “It is asserted,” the briefing says, “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.” Transform Justice went on to say that the results of a pilot scheme showed none of the advantages the government has claimed its proposals would bring. Rather, the use of a virtual court in the pilot scheme made it more difficult for lawyers and clients to communicate effectively, and increased the cost of justice processes compared to a traditional courtroom.
Furthermore, the pilot suggested that the digital court might increase the number of guilty pleas and result in longer sentences being issued. Transform Justice was particularly concerned about the suggestion of allowing people charged with offences that do not carry a prison sentence to enter a guilty plea and accept a penalty online. The charity was concerned this might encourage more people to plead guilty without properly understanding the implications of doing so, such as the fact they would be left with a formal criminal record.
The charity stressed that its criticisms of the online courts were not intended as an attempt to stand in the way of progress. In its briefing, it agrees emphatically that the UK’s court system is in need of being “brought into the digital age,” and suggests a number of measures that could help achieve this. For example, it suggests that information and documents should be made available digitally, and that email and text reminders could be sent to defendants ahead of court appearances.
However, the charity was sceptical not just about the government’s specific proposals, but about the entire concept of digital hearings. Specifically, it questioned whether they were actually necessary, insisting that appearing in person at a physical court would be preferable for many witnesses and defendants and that, even following waves of closures, there would be no shortage of courtrooms.