Online guilty pleas: A new challenge for fair trial rights

Article by Fair Trials

In its submission of written evidence to the UK Justice Committees inquiry into digital reforms to courts and tribunals, Fair Trials argues that the introduction of online plea deals poses challenges to fair trial rights. The new automatic online conviction procedure proposed by the UK Government lacks sufficient safeguards to ensure access to legal advice and to guarantee that vulnerable defendants and those with limited English language skills are not disadvantaged.

The proposed reforms introduce a new procedure for pleading guilty online that prioritises efficiency and user-friendliness, while side-lining procedural fairness and access to justice. Under the new procedure, defendants would be able to log on to an online system, view the charges and evidence against them, and decide whether to make a guilty plea. They would be offered a pre-determined penalty if they plead guilty within 21 days. If defendants accept, they are convicted and fined immediately through an automated system.

The automatic online conviction system would be used for minor offences only, however, even minor criminal records have serious consequences that may not be immediately apparent to a defendant when they plead guilty to a crime. Travel, insurance, credit ratings and job opportunities could all be adversely impacted by summary offences on a persons criminal record.

Imposing an automated fine for offences completely removes any human consideration or tailored approach to criminal justice. The proposed procedure would be fundamentally different to other existing procedures, because it wholly removes any form of judicial review from the criminal justice process. As we assert in our submission, Justice should not be a tick box exercise, where defendants click away their fair trial rights in exchange for convenience. Defendants should not be expected or incentivised to sacrifice crucial safeguards in the name of efficiency and convenience.

The automatic online conviction system would allow defendants to plead guilty online without accessing legal advice, as assisted digital support would only be provided to those who actively seek it out. Defendants who do not have legal representation are often not able to understand crucial parts of the criminal justice process, which leaves them disadvantaged. The new system would require users to accept that they have understood the relevant information, as well as the legal and financial consequences of pleading guilty, without establishing that defendants have actually understood these things.

The reforms would adversely impact users with vulnerabilities, in particular those with learning difficulties, mental health issues, poor language skills, or with limited command of English who may not understand the long-term implications of pleading guilty. The plan places the onus on vulnerable defendants to understand their own need for additional support and actively seek it out, raising huge concerns over the ability of vulnerable users to access justice.

In our The Disappearing Trial report, we have identified safeguards that ensure that trial waiver systems comply with human rights, including mandatory access to a lawyer, enhanced disclosure requirements, timing of agreements, judicial scrutiny, data collection, and limitations on benefits. The UK Governments proposal for an automatic online conviction procedure only seemingly complies with safeguards for disclosure and limitation on benefits.

Technological advances can help tackle inefficiencies and delays, which undermine the effectiveness of criminal justice systems. However, the impact on human rights and access to justice should always be a primary concern that outweighs the interests of costs and convenience. The reforms imply a significant risk of thousands of people going online and criminalising themselves without adequate legal safeguards, resulting in an over criminalised population.