The "automatic online conviction procedure" will "provide a more efficient and proportionate way of dealing with low level cases with no identifiable victim, freeing up magistrates’ time and space in court buildings to be focused on more complex cases", according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Dispute resolution specialist David McIlwaine of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the move reflects a "strong commitment" to advancing the use of technology in the court system.
McIlwaine said: "It is interesting that this first move to digitise the court process applies to cases that come before the criminal courts, and not to civil proceedings, although some businesses do already face obligations relating to online dispute resolution in the context of business-to-consumer disputes."
"A true online court appears to be some way off yet. There are, for example, questions remaining over how witness evidence can be adduced digitally without a court official being physically present to ensure the integrity of the evidence provided. This announcement by the MoJ reflects, though, its strong commitment to online dispute resolution, and we can expect further developments in relation to the digitisation of the court system in future," he said.
The MoJ said (36-page / 397KB PDF) that it would press ahead with introducing new legislation to specify which "summary, non-imprisonable offences" the new procedure could apply to. Initially the new procedure will be set up to deal with a small number of offences – "strict liability" railway fare evasion, as well as tram fare evasion, and possession of unlicensed rod and line, it said. If the move is successful then it said it could make the scheme available "to include other similar offences, including certain road offences".
Defendants would have to "opt in" to the online process. They will be "provided with all the information they need to make an informed decision as to whether they wish to follow this procedure, including details of the evidence against them, the potential consequences of choosing this procedure and the prospective fixed fine and other costs and penalties it will incur", the MoJ said.
"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," the MoJ said. "This will also only apply to defendants who are over 18 at the time of committing the offence. This procedure will therefore only apply to cases which already generally require minimum involvement from magistrates and would otherwise be decided by a single magistrate on the papers without the need for a court hearing through the single justice procedure (SJP)."
"Defendants will continue to have the right to raise mitigating circumstances and have these and other relevant factors considered by a magistrate. If the defendant wishes to plead guilty but does not wish to accept the standard penalty or the automatic online conviction (for example, because they want to explain mitigating circumstances or provide information about their means and have that taken into account) they can instead choose to have a magistrate consider that information via the SJP, or have their case heard in court. Pleading not guilty would mean the case is automatically listed for trial before a court," it said.
The MoJ said that people who are convicted through the new online procedure will not be sentenced "by a computer or algorithm".