It has been more than three years since a reform program to transform the U.K. justice system was launched. The changes, now well underway, include more than 50 distinct projects with an investment of more than $1 billion over six years.
The ever evolving process has adapted to suggestions, recommendations, and criticisms raised by users, professionals, internal reviews, and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. In response, the time to implement all of the necessary reforms has been extended by one year to 2023.
Both the implemented and impending reforms have received a lot of attention, both good and bad. Praise has been given to the long overdue change that enables jurors to reply to a jury summons online. The common platform, which will provide an online system that enables certain prosecuting bodies and legal professionals to access and share information relevant to a case, has also been seen as a welcome update to the previously slow and outdated systems.
However, concerns have been raised, particularly with respect to the costs of the reforms and whether they maintain access to justice for users.
A key concern aired by both individuals and various U.K. governmental and non-governmental institutions is the lack of clarity surrounding the impact the technical advancement of the U.K. court system will have on fairness and accessibility to justice for those who use it.
The Law Society (the professional body who regulate solicitors in the U.K.) agrees that a modernized court service and efficient use of technology could in theory benefit all users. However, it has stressed that this must not come at the expense of justice and the system must be open, accessible, and affordable.
An over-reliance on full video hearings to reduce the need for suspects to be physically present at court hearings has proved to be one of the most controversial of the reforms.
While costs will no doubt be saved via closure of further court buildings, arguably this reform is simply shifting the spending from the courts onto the police or prison service who will have to provide equipment and secure rooms and staff in order to facilitate participation. This puts increased pressure on these services which already have restricted budgets and resources.
The closure of courts has resulted in defendants and witnesses (often with limited means) having to travel further to attend court hearings, increasing costs and travel time for them.
Concerns have also been raised regarding the reliability of technology in courts and prisons. Adequate internet connections, which have been problematic, are necessary for hearings to run smoothly.
In addition, there are concerns regarding access to justice. According to Transform Justice (a charity devoted to creating a better justice system in the U.K.), judges are concerned about the risk of “unconscious bias and depersonalisation.”
Criminal lawyers are unified in their view that it will be significantly more difficult to adequately advise a client via video link and that defendants appearing via video link are less likely to be granted bail than those that appear in person. Members of the legal profession are also anxious about the impact that the increased use of video hearings will have on vulnerable defendants, such as those with mental illnesses and juveniles.
Significant concerns have been raised in respect of defendants being able to enter a plea online without having accessed legal advice. Prior to the reform program, this was available for summary, non-jailable motoring offenses where the previous system had been to enter a plea by post.
The reforms have extended this to defendants facing other types of prosecutions (Transport for London and TV Licensing). On the plus side, the introduction of the online platform has resulted in an increase in responses which is a positive step and means that less cases are being handled without the individual’s input. However, concerns have been raised as to whether defendants who are not represented are aware of all the potential ramifications a guilty plea could have on travel, insurance, credit ratings, and job opportunities.
For more serious cases, the reforms have introduced a project which makes it possible for represented defendants to enter their plea online through their legal representatives before coming to court. It is hoped that this will encourage earlier engagement in the court process, as well as cutting costs by removing the need for a plea hearing and enabling indictable only cases to proceed straight to the Crown Court.
This project is still being piloted, and serious concerns have been voiced in respect of whether this should ever be extended to unrepresented defendants.
On a more positive note, the introduction of the common platform has received praise given it is a move away from a system that was slow and relied heavily on hard copy documentation. The platform aims to deliver a single online system that acts as a “central hub,” enabling the police, the CPS, HMCTS (Her Majesty Courts and Tribunal Service), and legal professionals to access and share relevant information about a case.
There is a concern, however, that defendants who do not have representation will be disadvantaged as they will not be able to access the platform themselves.
Over the coming months, further aspects of the reforms will be rolled out and existing services will be finessed and increased in scale. Further testing and piloting will also take place. HMCTS still has a considerable way to go with the planned reforms, but the potential impact should not be underestimated.
The aims of the reforms must be carefully balanced with fairness, access to justice, and transparency, and HMCTS must be sure that cost savings are not prioritized at the expense of justice for all.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Ilana Baines is a criminal and regulatory lawyer in London at specialist fraud firm Byrne and Partners LLP. She has experience defending allegations of complex fraud including corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, and insider dealing,