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Online justice – a cautionary tale

Penelope Gibbs
10 Mar 2017

If you are charged with speeding, or driving without insurance, and admit guilt, you can now deal with the whole thing on your computer or mobile – admission of guilt, paying the penalty and receiving the conviction. The system for low level motoring offences moved online in 2015. If you don’t want to go online, you can still have your case dealt with by post (“on the papers”), in which case, it’s dealt with by a single magistrate sitting in a closed court.

It is impossible to know quite how the online system works without committing an offence, but a magistrate has written to me about the outcomes. She and colleagues are outraged by an unfairness in the system.

One of the sanctions of such offences is that your licence is endorsed with penalty points. This is all now done digitally by the DVLA, as they do road tax. In the old days you had to send your paper licence for the endorsements to be printed on, and the licence returned to you. But the paper licence is now redundant. Unfortunately the law has not yet been revised, so you still have to send your plastic licence to the Fixed Penalty Office.

So the process is that you plead guilty online, pay the penalty online and are asked to send your plastic licence off. The Fixed Penalty Office tick your name off a list of people who have paid the penalty online, but don’t actually do anything with the licence – so they go through a costly administrative process that (according to my magistrate source) has no practical point. So far, so absurd, but the real problem is what happens when offenders don’t send their licence in order to tick the box of this apparently pointless process.

If you plead guilty online, pay your penalty, but forget to, or don’t understand you need to, send your plastic licence, the penalty you paid is refunded and your case is automatically (?) sent to the magistrates’ court, where it is dealt with administratively by a single magistrate sitting in a closed court. “In court these offenders are then subject to the whim of the magistrate and sentencing guidelines. So instead of a fixed penalty of £100, they could be order to pay for a minor speeding offence and on average wage, £150 plus £30 victim surcharge plus £85 costs” (magistrate).

So magistrates sitting in a closed court are tearing their hair out, dealing with cases where the perpetrator has already owned up and paid the penalty, but they have to impose much higher charges, knowing that the offenders’ error did no harm at all. We also don’t know how clear it is to offenders who go online that they have to send their licence off, or if they are sent a reminder.

What has gone wrong? When the paper licence was made redundant and the DVLA went digital, the law on low level motoring offences was not changed accordingly (new legislation is going through parliament now). So people are still asked to send their plastic licence because the law says they have to submit their licence, even though sending in their licence has no function. Because the law says the licence has to be sent, the law also has to deal use a different process for those who don’t send their licence, even if they have paid their penalty, and the DVLA can and do put penalty points on licences digitally.

The magistrate I spoke to said a high proportion of the cases they dealt with in the Single Magistrate Procedure were of people who had already paid their penalty but not sent the licence. Apparently it has been going on for months.

So what does this illustrate – other than the government appears to have failed to update legislation in time resulting in thousands of people being penalised for not doing something which had no useful function? I think it shows the problems of putting justice online, without properly road-testing it, and ensuring that it makes sense. It shows the risk of hidden justice – both the online, and the court process for those who plead guilty are closed. It shows that insufficient effort is being made to get feedback from practitioners and judges. The magistrate who contacted me is keen to overturn a miscarriage of justice. I’m glad she contacted me, but sad that the problem was not resolved through the system.

It has been difficult for me to verify this story. I have tried to road-test the online system myself, and submitted FOI requests, which were only half answered. If I’ve got anything wrong, do let me know.