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June 26, 2015

Is better IT the answer to courtroom chaos?

It was an interesting week for court reform.  The Lord Chancellor pronounced himself shocked by the chaotic processes he saw in the courts he visited “it is … undeniable that our courts are trapped in antiquated ways of working that leave individuals at the mercy of grotesque inefficiencies and reinforce indefensible inequalities”.  He wants to reform the system “so that we can deliver value-for-money for taxpayers and fair treatment for all citizens”. I think we would all like that.  But the question is how can it be achieved? The government and the judiciary seem to have put all their eggs into the IT basket.  Perhaps the most important speech was one by Sir Brian Leveson on the blueprint of the reforms.  He decried the paper culture (“if you walk round our court estate, it is submerged under the weight of files – acres of rooms are dedicated to them”), and envisages a time when nearly all court processes can be done online including pleas and accepting sentences. “We have started the process of enabling defendants in certain cases to plead guilty on line. But that is only the beginning. In some cases, for instance non-imprisonable lower end crime (such as less serious driving cases that only ever end up with a fine) it should be possible to use recognised sentencing guidelines to identify a prospective sentence which the person who has just pleaded guilty can accept if he or she chooses to do so, having entered their outgoings and income (which may well be cross checked), with the right to a hearing being reserved for those who ask for it, perhaps because they have particular mitigation”. My concern about this is the slippery slope.  Ordinary people are not knowledgeable about the legal system.  Without a lawyer, they may not know what to plead and the implications of accepting guilt, including criminal records and sanctions.  As it is, I have heard hair-raising stories of unrepresented defendants accepting the wrong charge, and having no idea how to argue the case for mitigation.  Meanwhile chaos in the courts appears to be increasing with brilliant lawyer bloggers like Alison Gurdon pointing out that speedy justice is often overriding true justice.  Can you replace humane, expert legal advice with online systems?  I doubt it.