Sir Brian Leveson, head of the Queen’s Bench Division, has proposed an online system of sentencing for minor offenders. The suggestion was made as part of the most recent round of proposals delivered in an effort to find ways to speed up the criminal justice system through the use of information technology.
Back in January, Leveson proposed that physical court proceedings could be replaced by an online hearing process for many low-level offenders. Addressing the Modernising Justice Through Technology conference, he seemed to take the idea of reducing the burden that more minor cases place upon the system even further.
Speaking just a day after his previous proposals for boosting the efficiency of the UK’s criminal courts received the backing of the Lord Chancellor, Leveson suggested that sentences could be handed out to those who had committed only low-level offences automatically. Fines could then be paid online with a debit or credit card, he proposed. This would be used in relatively straightforward cases where defendants have entered guilty pleas, so that establishing guilt would not be an issue.
“It should be possible,” Leveson suggested, “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.” Then, they would simply enter their payment details in order to pay the fine and the process would be concluded in a single, virtual session. This would bring the process of handling guilty pleas for minor offences somewhat in line with the process for traffic offences. Indeed, Leveson compared the process to road fund licenses and parking fines.
Defendants would also enter their income and outgoings to ensure that the fine would be appropriate. This information would, of course, be checked for accuracy.
In his speech, Leveson suggested that this would allow, “the right to a hearing being reserved for those who ask for it, perhaps because they have particular mitigation.” The rest would be able to accept the suggested penalty and bypass the need for a hearing, thereby reducing the workload of the courts.
“A very large bulk of standard, low-level work which is presently very expensive to process may be resolved without a formal court appearance or hearing,” Leveson said in summing up.
However, Leveson also warned that there were “elephant traps” to be aware of in adopting such a system. In particular, he pointed to a past history of failures in IT projects and also said that “some of [his] colleagues” may be reluctant to move away from paper files.