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Online pleas and recorded evidence in justice reforms

16/09/16

Transformation package includes faster process for minor offences and increased use of video in trials

People will be able to plead guilty to some minor offences and pay the fines online, and courts will make more use of video and pre-recorded cross-examinations, under a series of measures designed to modernise and speed up the justice process.

The steps are included in a £700 million programme, Transforming Our Justice System, announced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday.

The accused will log on to see the evidence against them before entering their plea. A guilty plea will allow them to view the penalty, accept it and pay up.

ElizabethTruss-960x640Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss (pictured) said fare dodging on public transport would form the first category of cases transferred online.

She said: “We have the tools and the technology to cut unnecessary paperwork, to deliver swifter justice and to make the experience more straightforward.”

The new technology would allow cases to be dealt with more quickly and enable magistrates and courts to focus their attentions “where they are most needed”, the MoJ said.

Sparing trauma

In a further technological change, the MoJ has confirmed plans – flagged by the Courts and Tribunal Service’s chief executive Sir Oliver Heald last week – to spare some victims and witnesses from reliving traumatic events in open court.

A trial scheme allowing cross-examinations to be recorded earlier, then broadcast during the trial itself, has been hailed a success and will be extended across the country.

The MoJ said the successful trials - in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-upon-Thames, in London – had mostly involved sexual offences.

They had shown that victims “felt less pressure” and that witnesses “were better able to recall events” when their evidence was pre-recorded. 

Truss added: “Most importantly these reforms will allow us to better protect victims and witnesses who can find the experience of reliving a traumatic event in court incredibly stressful.”

More than 12 million pages of evidence have been put online and video link systems have been installed in 130 Crown Courts, officials said.

Access criticism

But the measures have prompted criticism in some quarters. The Labour Party has said the new technology will not compensate for reduced access to justice, because of legal aid cuts, court closures and new court and tribunal fees.

Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon said: “We note the concerns of practitioners following the rushed introduction of new court technology.

“Unless the Government’s Prison and Courts Reform Bill ensures court modernisation goes hand-in-hand with improved access to justice, then this will be another missed opportunity from a Government that has failed on justice.”

In addition, questions are likely to be raised about whether the names of those who plead guilty online will be published.

When cases are heard in front of a magistrate, they are open for the media to report on the hearing and the verdict.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

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