Future UK legal system will feature ‘automatic justice’
Thu 15 Sep 2016
As part of a raft of technological reformation, the UK justice system will introduce automated online justice for those admitting minor offences – wherein these individuals will have fines issued and verdicts recorded without the intervention of any human legal entity.
The innovation comes as part of a £270 million package of measures outlined in Transforming Our Justice System, published today by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals.
An early version of this robo-justice system is already being rolled out for traffic offences, and the report anticipates that such procedures will be extended to cover victimless crimes such as rail ticket and TV license evasion. The paper does not go into specifics regarding which minor crimes might be subject to this ‘hands-free’ summary justice:
‘In certain cases, we are proposing an even simpler process where defendants can resolve their cases immediately using an entirely automated system. This would mean when someone admits certain minor offences and chooses to opt in to an automated system, that system will provide an online conviction and issue a standard fixed fine and costs. This will enable defendants to complete their case and pay the penalty instantaneously, without having to attend court – a just, efficient and simple improvement.’
The measures detailed in the paper envision a radical digitalisation of the UK justice system, extending to an increase in virtual courtrooms, a ramping up of migration from paper-based to entirely digital documentation chains, and ‘a single online system for starting and managing cases across the criminal, civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions’.
‘Some cases will be handled entirely online,’ states the report, which envisages a ‘structured process of online hearings’ which will involve widespread use of teleconferencing and video-conferencing.
In the light of recent UK trials of the system, pre-trial cross-examination, which allows vulnerable witnesses to provide pre-recorded evidence in advance of the trial, will be rolled out nationally from 2017.
The paper states that in addition to cutting evidence-taking time in half, this approach has yielded an increase in early ‘guilty’ pleas by defendants.
The report insists that where appropriate, cases requiring it will receive traditional courtroom procedures and processes. It also states that without exception, all cases within the British legal system will be initiated online. It also reflects on the economic considerations of this rationalisation, noting that far fewer buildings will be needed for in-person hearings:
‘We currently have over 400 court and tribunal buildings, many of them old, small, inefficient, yet expensive to maintain. In 2014-15, around half (48%) of courts and tribunals were used for less than half of the time. Many will be closed over the next four years to fund investment in fewer, more modern buildings that can better serve people’s needs.’
The current insecure digital practices still widespread in the justice system (and notably also in general government) are also to be addressed; the authors observe that ‘there is still too much evidence being carted around the country on CDs and CCTV tapes, and too many ‘digital’ ways of working rely on people scanning in pieces of paper. That will change.’
The £270 million allocated for the digital reforms were agreed in 2015, with completion due in 2019.