Legal Analysis

Judicial Review and Courts Bill: Briefing on automatic online conviction and written procedure for indicating plea


The Judicial Review and Courts Bill poses challenges posed to fair trial rights through the proposed expansion of digitalising the court estate.  As currently drafted, the Judicial Review Bill would expand the use of trial waiver systems, including online plea bargaining vis-à-vis a new automated conviction system and the expansion of written postal procedures for indicating pleas in lieu of in-person hearings.

The primary policy objective of this Bill is efficiency; to deliver swifter criminal justice, improve administration and case management in criminal courts, and provide alternative ways for people to engage with criminal courts processes in order to increase efficiency and accessibility in the criminal courts in England and Wales. According to the Government, the purpose of these changes is to result in time savings for the court and its users, a reduction in delays, greater flexibility for the effective deployment of court resources, and support for the system’s recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

Inefficiencies and delays can seriously undermine the effectiveness of criminal justice systems, and we welcome the fact that the Government recognises the urgent need to address serious challenges regarding court capacity in England and Wales, and the backlog of criminal cases, which has put an enormous strain on the criminal justice system in
recent years. We also recognise that technological developments have the potential to improve criminal justice systems, and that they could help to make them more effective and efficient, where they are applied appropriately with due regard for the rights of defendants.

The drive for increased efficiency in criminal justice proceedings, however, often puts human rights at risk, and Fair Trials believes that this Bill prioritises cost-savings and convenience far above fair trial rights. Rather than protecting the rights of defendants and enhancing their ability to participate in their legal proceedings, the Bill seeks to exclude them from the courts as much as possible, viewing the physical presence of defendants in court as drain on time and resources, rather than an essential aspect of a fair and equal criminal justice system. Further, the Bill trivialises criminal proceedings as standardised, administrative matters, incentivising people to conveniently sign away their rights, or even to be convicted and sentenced by a computer programme.

Defendants’ rights, and in particular, their fair trial rights, should always be central to criminal justice laws. The impact on human rights and access to justice should always be a primary concern that outweighs the interests of costs, and convenience for any measure the Government wishes to adopt to improve efficiency.