A response from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to its consultation on a root and branch overhaul of the courts and tribunals system was today described as "woolly" by the Law Society of England and Wales, which called for more detail.
The Law Society and other stakeholders responded to the consultation on proposed changes to areas such as digitisation of the courts and changes to the justice system that could see people enter guilty pleas online and receive fixed penalties for some offences.
Law Society president Robert Bourns commented:
“Digitisation undoubtedly has a central place in the modern courts and tribunals service and we are keen to work with HM Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) to ensure modernisation bolsters justice rather than undermines it.
"We are pleased the MoJ has recognised the value of independent professional legal advice and no longer seems set on making the use of digital channels compulsory.”
The offences listed in the consultation include train and tram fare evasion and some unlicensed rod and line offences. Certain road traffic offences may also be included after a pilot has commenced.
Robert Bourns added: "The MoJ has said that an individual will not be sentenced by a computer or algorithm.
“While the MoJ has said the system will be designed to prevent users pleading guilty without a full understanding of their decision and potential consequences, we will need to see more information about these vital safeguards.
"It depends on how the information is presented to the defendant and how they can exit the process if they decide they want their case heard in court.
"The Law Society has no objection in principle to the concept of online convictions - it is a natural extension of the current process of pleading guilty by post to certain offences.
"However, we believe that the offences recommended for an online conviction pilot programme will be few in number and not provide an adequate test for the system's robustness.
"It would be inappropriate for more serious cases to be dealt with automatically in this way - imagine pleading guilty to a motoring offence because it seems like the easy thing to do and then finding you can't get car insurance or that you face trouble getting a job.
"If you'd spoken to a solicitor you would have been made aware of the knock-on consequences of the plea and of having a record.”
It is also proposed that the government should have the power to add offences that can be dealt with in this way via secondary legislation - allowing ministers to make changes to law without further reference to parliament.
"We believe that this is an inadequate safeguard for what could be a fundamental change in the nature of cases put through this process."
He added: "While there are some positive indications in parts of the MoJ's response to the consultation, there simply isn't enough information and, as always, the devil is in the detail."
About the Law Society
The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.
Press office contact: Law Society Press Office | +44 (0)20 3189 1880