The Bar Council has warned the Government that the quality and reputation of the UK's justice system must not suffer a fall from grace, as it prepares to press ahead with plans for online courts and virtual hearings.
The Council released a briefing to Members of Parliament ahead of the second reading of the bill which was to make the changes around online courts, the Prisons and Courts Bill, in which they made a series of warnings.
The Council said that issuing convictions online was a risky process, and thus should be constrained to low level offences, such as those which would warrant a penalty notice for motoring offences, environmental crime, excessive noise, or anti-social behaviour.
They also stated that there was not enough clarity about the changes which were going to be made to the roles of the staff of Her Majesty's Crown Tribunal Service. The Council made it clear that there was not enough detail in the bill for these changes to be scrutinised properly.
The changes to the requirements of qualifications and experience were also yet to be properly put in place, and more case management appears to be expected of those working for the CTS, but this is not set out in any sort of defined manner.
The final warning from the Council was that the Secretary of State should not have the solitary power to decide which offences can be judged by the online courts, and especially not which convictions can be handed out by the new system. This should come, it has been suggested, with wide consultation from the justice sector.
Chairman of the Bar, Andrew Langdon QC said: “Appropriate safeguards must be put in place to ensure that the quality of justice and the high regard in which our system is held are not undermined.
“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.
“As to some of the envisaged online procedures, defendants must be offered a genuine choice. They must also be made aware of their right to consult a lawyer.
“Inviting defendants to use an online procedure to indicate a plea, or to opt for a summary trial instead of a Crown Court jury trial, risks trivialising potentially serious consequences for those accused of committing offences.
“Although certain witnesses benefit from being able to give evidence by way of a remote link to court or by way of pre-recorded testimony, generally speaking, the physical presence of victims, witnesses, juries, defendants, judges, lawyers and the public, is fundamental to our innate sense of how justice should be delivered.”
The Bar Council’s parliamentary briefing on the Prisons and Courts Bill is available here.