The Prisons and Courts Bill is due for its second reading in Parliament on the 20th March 2017. It has been trumpeted by Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, paving the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation and the delivery of a world-class court system.
Prison System in Crisis
I don’t think anyone is any doubt the prisons need an overhaul. Barely a week goes by without negative publicity about the state of our prisons. As an aside my experience/views are that prison officers are woefully underpaid to look after the most dangerous members of our society, however whenever I visit prisons I am amazed as to how many prison officers are sat around doing very little. I digress.
The innovation in the bill is ‘online courts’. Everything else is online, so why not the courts? The legal profession are commonly criticised for being outdated. Out of touch, the wigs, the robes, ‘My Lord’ and how many professions refer to the meal in the middle of the day as ‘luncheon’. This should be welcomed. Surely?
Well not according to Penelope Gibbs, the director of Transform Justice and a former magistrate who said:
“The move to online and virtual justice threatens to significantly increase the number of unrepresented defendants, to further discriminate against vulnerable defendants, to inhibit the relationship between defence lawyers and their clients, and to make justice less open.”
The rhetoric is impressive, but in practice this is unlikely to be the case. There is little difference to people pleading guilty by post, it only applies to the lowest level offending such as fishing without a licence and dodging train fares. These offenders are never represented, not on the face of it vulnerable although I accept you can’t generalise and the Ministry of Justice will provide viewing platforms if you are interested to know which members of the community are fishing without a licence.
It may also free the courts up to deal with the more serious matters where representation is needed and Justice must be seen to be done.
The real concern society should have is the insidious problem that this may just be the thin end of the wedge of justice by computer. Fixed fees for driving offences and street cautions/fines are handed out daily. No magistrate, no Judge, no jury, no legal process, just paperwork. Once matters reach court a plethora of sentencing guidelines determine the punishment (within a band) leaving little room for discretion, the human touch and the art of advocacy. It is a difficult balance to strike when striving to deliver ‘a world class’ court system.
Max Saffman – Specialist Criminal Defence Lawyer
Written by Max Saffman. Max is a highly experienced criminal solicitor and Higher Court Advocate with in excess of twenty years experience of defending allegations of serious crime.