The Ministry of Justice is pushing ahead with plans that will allow people to plead guilty online and immediately pay a standard fine for certain offences.
The automatic online conviction process is part of the government’s £1bn overhaul of the UK’s justice system, which aims to make “a wholesale shift to access justice digitally”.
The plans were first launched for consultation in September 2016, and the government last week published its response to that, which received 790 responses.
The government said that – despite some concerns being raised by the respondents – it would be proceeding with trials for three offences: railway fare evasion, tram fare evasion, and the possession of an unlicensed rod and line.
If these are successful, the government said it intended to expand this to similar offences, including some road offences, however it said these would be looked at in detail before a decision was made and that they would be for crimes that did not carry a prison sentence.
The process – which 59% of the 280 respondents to this question said they supported in principle – would be a voluntary procedure for anyone who pleaded guilty online.
They would be able to choose to avoid court by accepting a pre-determined penalty, which will include a victim surcharge, prosecution costs and compensation, as well as the fine. This would be a single charge, and mitigating circumstances – that would sometimes lead to a reduction in the fee paid – could not be considered.
Those in favour of the process said it was the best way to streamline the process for straightforward sentences and free up magistrates’ time to focus on more complex cases.
However, those respondents who were against the process said their concerns centred around safeguarding vulnerable people – such as those with low literacy levels and those with learning difficulties or mental health problems – and how any mitigating circumstances would be considered.
In response, the government said that anyone who wanted to enter mitigating circumstances would not have to use the online system, emphasising the voluntary nature of the process.
The system will be designed to provide as much clarity as possible, the government said, which will include “clear on-screen warnings” about right to a trial, signposting to other sources of help and offering information on the implications of a guilty plea.
The government said that it would ask users to complete a “decision tree” to accept they understand the information, and added that the courts would have the power to quash the conviction and restart proceedings if it was later proven the defendant didn’t understand the consequence of their decision.
In addition, the government stressed that development of the system would be user-led, with feedback used to improve the system in an iterative way.
The consultation also asked about the government’s strategy for making sure that everyone would be able to use the digital justice system – which will also see an increased use of video-link technology, payment of fines online and plans to scrap paper forms for all courts and tribunals.
The government pledged greater support for people who might have trouble using technology, particularly, the elderly, people with disabilities, or how have poor literacy or English skills, and those who can’t access computers due to cost of location.
This includes maintaining paper channels where necessary, thorough user research for each service that will go digital and updating information and redesigning forms so they are written in plain English.
The government also noted that all digital services would be assessed by the Government Digital Service to make sure they meet assisted service standards, with face-to-face support services procured through GDS’s assisted digital training and support framework.