“(1) Before this section may be commenced, the Secretary of State must—
(a) commission an independent review of the potential impact, efficacy, and operational issues on defendants and the criminal justice system of the automatic online conviction and penalty for certain summary offences as set out in Clause 3 of this Act;
(b) lay before Parliament the report and findings of such independent review; and
(c) provide a response explaining whether and how such issues which have been identified would be mitigated”.
This amendment would require a review of Clause 3 of this Bill before it is introduced.
Good afternoon, Sir Mark. It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith back to his place on the shadow Justice Front Bench. It was my privilege to serve as Parliamentary Private Secretary to our wonderful Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, when he was shadow Lord Chancellor and my hon. Friend was a shadow Minister. I was pleased to learn from him then, and continue to do so today. It is also good to welcome the Minister to his place as we face each other across the room formally for the first time. I hope that this will be the first of many such opportunities.
I do not underestimate the job that the Minister has taken on, given the crisis in our courts, the record backlog in the Crown court and elsewhere, and a Justice Department stripped of resources over the last decade. Just in case he tries to rely again on the covid pandemic as an excuse, let me point out that it was all in a terrible mess long before covid and long before he arrived in his post. Just one of the facts that I have picked up is that in 2010 there were 152,791 Crown court cases, which took an average of 391 days to complete; in 2019, there were 107,913 Crown court cases, which took an average of 511 days to complete. Clearly, the Minister has his work cut out. We wish him well with it and will be happy to offer our contributions and advice along the way.
I also pay tribute to the Committee Clerks for their, as ever, first-class professionalism and support as we prepared for this Committee stage.
My final thanks go to stakeholders outside the House, including Justice, Fair Trials and Transform Justice, among others, for their energetic and constructive scrutiny and input, which have been of great assistance in identifying potential concerns about the Bill’s practical implications.
Given the amendments we have tabled—the first of which I shall speak to in detail shortly—it will be no surprise to the Minister that the Opposition have reservations about clause 3. However, we do very much recognise the need for, and indeed the benefit of, potentially moving some court processes online, so I will share our concerns in the hope that the Minister can provide reassurances to quell them.
The clause will create an automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty procedure, which will provide automatic online convictions as an alternative to the single justice procedure. Through this process, a defendant could opt to plead guilty online, which would result in an automatic conviction without the need for a hearing. The Bill’s explanatory notes state that, to begin with, the procedure will apply only to offences involving
“travelling on a train or tram without a ticket and fishing with an unlicensed rod.”
It is critical to note that secondary legislation approved by the affirmative procedure may make additional offences eligible.
As currently drafted, the clause has limitations. For instance, the defendant must consent to use of the process, so they retain the right to opt for an in-person hearing instead. Furthermore, the procedure is only available in respect of non-imprisonable summary offences where the accused was aged 18 or over when charged. Although we agree that these limitations, such as they are, are appropriate, there are a number of areas in which we think the safeguards built into the procedure need to go further.
The proposal to introduce online pleas was first made in the Prisons and Courts Bill in 2017. Transform Justice noted:
“It had not been subject to any public consultation then and still hasn’t.”
The assumption behind the clause, as with the expansion of written pleas, which we will come to in a later debate, is that a plea hearing is a straightforward and purely administrative hearing. It assumes that people will straightforwardly know whether they are guilty and will need no direction, assistance or support in pleading guilty to a criminal offence. I said earlier that this procedure is an online alternative to the single justice procedure, but there is an important difference. The single justice procedure allows defendants to choose to enter a plea in writing or online for the same types of offences that the automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty will apply to—that is to say, summary or non-imprisonable offences.
Those who plead guilty and do not request a hearing under the single justice procedure are convicted and sentenced by a single magistrate on the papers before them, and the defendant has the chance to submit mitigating factors to inform the magistrate in writing. If a defendant fails to respond to the letter setting out the charge within the 21-day time limit, the single magistrate will hear the case without any input from the defendant or prosecutor. However, the Bill’s explanatory notes make clear that under the AOCSSP—is there a way of pronouncing that? I do not know—cases could take place entirely online and without the involvement of a magistrate.
Under the single justice procedure, the magistrate can decide that a case is not appropriate to convict under said procedure, which provides at least a minimal level of safeguarding within the process. However, under the AOCSSP, as Justice notes, there is
“no independent judicial (or indeed, human) oversight whatsoever. Moreover, defendants who use the AOCSSP procedure will face a binary choice, with no opportunity to submit mitigating factors if they plead guilty, unless they choose to decline” the procedure and take the single justice procedure route instead.
The complete lack of human involvement in the process worries me. As a consequence, the Opposition have tabled amendments that seek to build into the process at least some level of safeguards. Although we agree completely with the Government that any online procedure should be optional, I also share Transform Justice’s scepticism, in that the defendant may not feel that they have much of a choice at all. How does the Minister think those pitfalls can best be communicated to the defendant?
The current introductory letter to the single justice procedure notice does not mention the option of pleading in court at all; it is only on page 3 of the following document that it comes up. To be honest, if I received one of these notices, even as the shadow Minister for such matters, I am not sure I would understand from the document that I had a genuine option to make my plea in a physical court hearing, rather than online or by post. Even when defendants understand that such a choice is available to them, I do not think that the information accompanying the note enables them confidently to make the best decision in their case. Some legal expertise is clearly required to know the benefits of pleading in court as opposed to pleading online. Again, I admit that even as the shadow Minister—I do not have any legal training at all; I am a journalist by profession—I would not be able appropriately to weigh the benefits of one course of action against the other. I hope the Minister understands what I mean. I am not trying to be obstructive or frivolous, but I think that the lay person receiving such a notice is currently not particularly well equipped to make a decision about their plea.
Transform Justice’s briefing calls on the Government to
“conduct and publish research on defendants’ understanding of the concept of viable defence and of mitigation, and of the factors to be taken into account in waiving the right to a ‘fair and public hearing’.”
That is an important point. The briefing also notes:
“The European Convention on Human Rights requires that in the determination of a criminal charge ‘everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law’. It also guarantees specific minimum rights for those charged with a criminal offence, including the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to defend yourself in person, and to have the assistance of an interpreter. The right to a fair and public hearing can be waived by the defendant, but only if they fully understand the charge and the implications of waiving their entitlement.”
Experiences of the single justice procedure suggest that many defendants will not fully understand the charges and the implications of waiving their entitlement to a public hearing. Research into such experiences could be an interesting and productive piece of work for the Department. I would welcome his thoughts on it, or, if his Department has considered the matter already, I would be grateful for more information about its work.
Another concern that has been raised about the expansion of the use of online pleas is that it may inadvertently drive an increase in the number of defendants without legal representation.
Given the significant changes that are taking place in how people plead—online, by post and so forth—does my hon. Friend think that the Government should conduct a public consultation? From what I have read, that is not happening.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is correct, and she makes exactly the point that many of the people working in the sector are saying to the Government: we need better data and more examination of the data to drive the best legal system that we can possibly have.
There is a possibility that the expansion of online pleas may inadvertently drive an increase in the number of defendants without legal representation and, importantly, and as a consequence, worse outcomes for defendants. That concern was specifically raised by Transform Justice, which worries that encouraging defendants to plead online
“will lead to more defendants representing themselves … since the process of ‘doing it yourself’ may appear easy.”
I note that the current single justice procedure notice encourages the option of pleading online over the postal option. Pleading online, the defendant is told, is “quick and easy”. They are informed that they will receive a confirmation email, so that they know their plea has gone through—just like buying something from Amazon. The notice warns:
“You need to pay correct postage and allow enough time for delivery”.
That is helpful advice, but I worry that we are already seeing a push towards online pleas marketed as justice made easy for the defendant when that is not necessarily going to be the case. It may be easy, but it may deny them proper justice.
In fact, entering a plea can be a very complex decision. Transform Justice’s research on unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts found that entering a plea was one of the times when defendants without legal representation were most disadvantaged. As they note in their briefing,
“Unrepresented defendants did not understand when they had a viable defence and should plead not guilty, but also pleaded not guilty when the evidence against them was overwhelming, thus losing credit for an early guilty plea if convicted.”
I am aware that the explanatory notes to the Bill suggest that online pleas will be able to be entered only if the defendant has legal advice, and I understand that it is the Government’s intention that that would be done through the common platform. That would mean that the defendant would need to engage the services of a legal professional. However, I am concerned that that safeguard has not been put into the primary legislation. I will speak about that more fully in the debate on amendment 48 later this afternoon.
Even more worrying is the fact that paragraph 59 of the Bill’s impact assessment seems to suggest that that safeguard will be available only to those accused of more serious offences. As the Minister knows, the implications of a guilty plea, even for minor offences, can be significant, including a criminal record for life that can detrimentally impact employment prospects, among other things. I would be grateful for reassurances from the Minister that the online system will include information that ensures that the defendant is aware of all the possible impacts of choosing to enter a guilty plea. Again, I will speak to that point more fully in the debate on amendment 50.
I also seek further reassurances from the Minister about the extent to which the Government foresee a defendant receiving legal representation by engaging a lawyer so that they can enter a plea through that common platform. Does the Minister think that a lawyer will provide the most generic sort of legal advice—to which I just referred—about the potential impact of a guilty plea? Or does he think that the lawyer would represent the defendant in the more traditional sense, under which they would engage in the disclosure process on behalf of the defence and potentially discuss the case with representatives of the prosecution? I am keen to hear more about how the Minister foresees that a defendant’s engagement of a legal representative to enter the plea would actually work. While I refer to the common platform, I also seek assurances from the Minister that the platform will work properly and will not itself be a barrier to justice.
Another concern raised is that the online plea procedure would remove the opportunity to challenge or change the charge early on in the case. Once again I turn to the detailed briefing from Transform Justice, which notes:
“The Leveson report emphasised the problem of people being wrongly charged (either over or under charged) and of the inefficiencies this causes—particularly if a charge is downgraded on the day of trial leading to the defendant pleading guilty. Sir Brian wrote: ‘any failure to charge appropriately has a considerable impact throughout the life of that case...For example, in the first quarter of 2014, 15% of all ‘cracked’ trials in the Crown Court were due to guilty pleas entered to alternative new charges offered by the prosecution for the first time on the day fixed for trial. A further 4% of cracked trials were primarily due to late guilty pleas being entered to new charges, previously being rejected by the prosecution...In such cases, although there will have been room for different decisions to be made prior to the date of trial, the seed for potential waste has been sown from the outset and could have been avoided had the initial charging decision been appropriate’.
If there is no hearing in which there is an opportunity to discuss the appropriateness of the charge before plea, defence and prosecution lose the chance to course correct a case early on, which can have knock-on impacts further down the line, such as leading to inappropriate allocation decisions or delaying subsequent court hearings, where mistakes have to be unpicked.
Another major source of anxiety for stakeholders in the justice sector and the media is the impact that AOCSSP will have on open justice. Worries have been raised about many of the Bill’s changes to criminal procedure. The Evening Standard courts correspondent, Tristan Kirk, has raised concerns about a range of administrative proposals in the Bill. As I used to be a court reporter myself, I have great sympathy with his cause.
I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that issue as a whole, but I will focus on online pleas. As I have discussed already, the AOCSSP is more closed off than the current single justice procedure because there is no human oversight or involvement at all. There is much to be said about the failings of the single justice procedure even to comply with the principle of open justice. The judge sits in a closed court, which is not accessible to the public or the press. Tristan Kirk has said of it:
“It’s possible these administrative hearings…will come with promises of ‘openness’. Years of Single Justice Procedure experience tells me measures will be sub-standard & chronically understaffed admin offices have to deal with problems.”
At least in the single justice procedure, there are listings for each day’s cases published online and the results for individual cases are made available. However, the AOCSSP sounds like the current online motoring conviction system, under which there is no data or public information available at all. If the AOCSSP is set up along similar lines, there will be no opportunity for scrutiny in the process, and it will be visible only to those who have been charged. If that is the case, to borrow from Tristan Kirk’s commentary again, the proposals will be
“music to the ears of defendants who’d rather no one knew they’ve been accused of a crime”.
I identify with that. I remember cases in Darlington magistrates court when I was a junior reporter on the Darlington & Stockton Times—a fine weekly newspaper. People would often do anything to avoid having their criminality exposed in the local paper, from threatening me physically, which we all get used to in this place, to offering to fund an evening’s beer.
The process makes it easier for offenders to escape notice. [Interruption.] I hear the Minister acknowledge that that is the case and I look forward to hearing his proposals to ensure that we have the open justice we all strive for. He has said that he takes issues of transparency and open justice seriously, and I do not think this is an intentional consequence of the Government’s proposals, but it is potentially serious. Will he confirm that some measure of external scrutiny will still be possible under the AOCSSP? Will listings for all cases and their outcomes at least be made available to all? If not, it will be a serious blow to open justice.
I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on the suggestion that the AOCSSP could form a barrier to effective participation in the justice system. As Transform Justice notes,
“All online conviction processes will start with a postal charge. These charges are sent through ordinary mail and there is no proof of their receipt”—
no proof whatsoever. It continues:
“The fact that two thirds of defendants do not respond by submitting a plea indicates that any criminal process which relies on defendants responding to a postal charge seems to present significant barriers to effective participation.”
The postal charge raises significant concerns. I know of constituency cases where people have changed address and their benefit letter has gone elsewhere, so they have ended up with frozen benefits. There will be huge problems ahead if things are sent by post and end up in somebody else’s postbox, or if people move and do not receive letters. I am particularly concerned about people with mental health issues and vulnerable people who, even if they do receive a letter, may not be able to interpret it.
My hon. Friend is correct and gives excellent examples. I had an example a few weeks ago of a constituent who found out that he was likely to be locked up because he had not paid his television licence. He had not received the letter because he was no longer at that address. I know that he had a responsibility to inform people that he had moved on, but the fact that nobody tried to find him before it got to the point of court bailiffs turning up at the previous property to take goods away to pay his fines and court costs is a nonsense. Clearly, that can happen.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s equality impact assessment does not recognise the issues that he has eloquently raised about the postal charge?
Almost certainly. Our hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East talked about people with mental health problems or disabilities who are all disadvantaged by these proposals, because no adequate system seems to be in place to ensure that they properly understand what they are doing and what is happening to them. If they do not understand, they may choose to ignore it and end up with a conviction and a criminal record, which has terrible ramifications for employment and all manner of other things, including even entering another country. If they have a criminal charge against them, they may not be able to go on holiday to some countries.
The last thing I expect from my hon. Friend is cynicism. I am sure the Government want the justice system to work correctly, so it is time they looked carefully at this. As I develop my arguments, I will talk about the need for research and data, which is absent. We have asked for it in the past, but no specific data exists on why people choose to ignore or do not even respond in any shape or form to postal charges.
We do not know why so few people respond to postal charges. It does not seem sensible to expand the use of postal charges until we have more data on the issue. One reason that has been suggested is that many defendants do not even receive the letter. I have already talked about that; it might be sent to an old address, for example. Perhaps the person does not even understand the letter that they have received. The defendant, as we have discussed, might have a mental health condition or a neurodivergent condition that presents a barrier to understanding.
Although phone calls for someone on benefits are now on a freephone number, the initial calls to the HMCTS assisted digital advice on how to fill in a physical online form are charged at local rates. Yesterday I received from the Minister the answer to a written question on support for some vulnerable defendants. I asked what training prosecuting authorities who use the single justice procedure, and who are not the CPS, receive on disability and neurodivergent conditions. The response stated:
“The Ministry of Justice is not responsible for training prosecuting authorities and thus cannot speak to whether they receive training on disability or neurodivergent conditions. In response to the Neurodiversity in the Criminal Justice System: A review of the evidence report, the Ministry of Justice is taking a whole system approach and are working with HM Courts and Tribunal Service, HM Prison and Probation Service, Home Office, Department for Health and Social Care and the Welsh Government to”— here is the key word for me—
“consider neurodiversity training for all frontline staff within the Criminal Justice System.”
Surely, Minister, it should not be “considered”. It should be a case of deciding how we ensure that it happens and that people across the criminal justice system are fully equipped and trained to deal with people in these circumstances.
For people on low incomes, I worry that the proposals present a significant and unnecessary barrier to engaging with the process. Does the Minister have any thoughts on remedying that? Earlier I looked at the AOCSSP, which seems to disproportionately affect those on low incomes. In a normal court hearing and under the single justice procedure, defendants sanctioned with a fine are asked to state their means, to enable the judge to adjust the fine if necessary. Under the online conviction procedure, everyone would be made to pay the same fine, because there would not be any information on which to base a different decision.
I understand that the equality impact assessment suggests that defendants on low incomes will be made aware of the option to opt for an in-person hearing instead, so that their financial position can be taken into account. I have already spoken about my concern that defendants would not understand that there is a real choice to opt into an in-person hearing, so I am not sure that this is a sufficient safeguard for those on low incomes. Does the Minister have any thoughts on any additional safeguards to protect those on low incomes from being further disadvantaged, since that is identified in the Government’s own impact assessment? Under the AOCSSP, could it be made much clearer that it would be preferable for someone who needs their financial situation to be taken into consideration to opt for an in-person hearing? Is the Minister aware of any existing data relating to whether those who have pleaded under the single justice procedure and the automatic online conviction process have been the recipients of heftier fines than those who attended in-person hearings?
Another possible barrier to effective engagement could surface for defendants with disabilities. The Equality Act 2010 requires public bodies to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities. I struggle to see how the AOCSSP will be able to support the use of reasonable adjustments. The Bill makes no provision for screening to see whether defendants will need reasonable adjustments to be made. I will speak to that point more fully in the debate on amendment 57, but it is important to consider the issue briefly at this point. Under the current process for a single justice procedure, defendants are asked to tick on the form if they have a disability. What if their disability has prevented them from opening the letter or understanding the form? How does the Minister think we can address that barrier to participation?
I also seek the Minister’s assurance on the matter of the security of the AOCSSP. Concern has been raised that the online conviction system may not be sufficiently secure. The single justice procedure plea form requires someone to confirm that only the name, address and date of birth details presented on the form are correct. That is a much lower level of security than that used by other Government Departments through the Verify scheme. What security safeguards does the Ministry intend to use for the system? For a process that results in criminal conviction and sanction, I hope that they will be significantly more robust.
I have a couple of further concerns about the role of the prosecuting bodies that will use the AOCSSP. The first relates to an article written by Sebastian Walker about the first iteration of the proposals in the Prison and Courts Bill, as highlighted by Transform Justice:
“The Prison and Courts Bill made provision for a number of penalties to be imposed upon conviction – including for the offender to pay compensation and prosecution costs as determined by the prosecutor. It is clear from the decision in R (on the application of Faithfull) v Ipswich Crown Court that under English law a compensation order forms part of the determination of sentence. It seems then prima facie inappropriate, and in contravention of Art.6, that the prosecution – instead of an independent and impartial tribunal – decides the compensation to be imposed: their discretion restricted only by the maximum that can be imposed for that offence under the automatic online conviction procedure…Questions must also be raised as to whether these changes would set a negative precedent for justice as a whole. The prosecution’s ability to set the amount of compensation to be paid amounts to a sentence being imposed in a criminal court by one of the parties to the case and it is difficult to see how this is not abjectly contrary to the principle of a fair trial even if it is ECHR compliant.”
The second issue, which follows from that, relates to prosecuting inspection and scrutiny. The Crown Prosecution Service as a prosecuting body is subject to inspection and scrutiny through the independent inspectorate, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. However, prosecutions made under the single justice procedure and the online motoring convictions process are not subject to the same level of scrutiny. That is a point of concern for the Opposition, especially when considered alongside the fact that media scrutiny of cases under the procedure will also be limited. I would like the Minister to explain how scrutiny will be possible for prosecutions made under the system.
I imagine that the prosecuting bodies will be similar to those that currently prosecute under the single justice procedure—the police, the BBC and transport companies. Does the Minister think that these companies should be subject to some measure of inspection in relation to the prosecutions they make, or at least publish data on their prosecutions?
With all that said, I turn to amendment 45.
I am glad the Minister is pleased. The amendment would mandate the Secretary of State to commission and lay before Parliament an independent review of the potential impact of the AOCSSP on defendants and the criminal justice system, its efficacy and operational issues.
I have spoken at some length about the numerous concerns raised about the procedure, and sought the Minister’s reassurance on many of them. The most appropriate form of reassurance would be an independent report into the impact of the procedure. The procedure marks quite a significant shift in the way we handle criminal cases and would establish the principle for all summary and non-imprisonable offences to be automated through an online plea, conviction and penalty website. The Opposition recognise the need to explore how we can deploy technology in the criminal justice system, but we do not agree that it can be done without a robust evidence base, especially when we are dealing with changes that potentially pose a threat to defendants’ rights, access to justice and the principle of open justice.
As JUSTICE has noted, the evidence base for the procedure is poor and none of the reports that the Government refer to in the Bill documents—Sir Robin Auld’s 2001 “Review of the Criminal Courts”, Sir Brian Leveson’s 2015 “Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings” and the Government’s own 2016 consultation, “Transforming our Justice System”—explores the real world consequences and risks inherent in the procedure. Furthermore, the 2016 Green Paper, in which the Government first proposed the introduction of an online conviction system, stated that the system should be using three offences before any decision was taken to make it permanent. It noted:
“We propose to test the system with a small number of summary, non-imprisonable offences in the initial phase of introducing the online conviction and fixed fine scheme, which would be: Railway fare evasion; Tram fare evasion; Possession of unlicensed rod and line. If this initial phase is successful, we plan to bring other offences, particularly certain road traffic offences, into the system in future.”
It does seem to be a bit of a feature of this Bill. When we were dealing with clause 2, we heard that the abolition of the Cart judicial review was to be a template for other offences, and the same is happening here. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is slippery slope? [Interruption.] I hear the Minister snorting from a sedentary position—
Even with the offences my hon. Friend has named so far—offences in which honesty is a factor—it is very important that the questions that he is asking are answered before we approve the Bill, especially if we are to get the number of offences increased through secondary legislation.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. That is why we have tabled the amendment, which would require data and proper research to be conducted, so the Government have something by which to measure their success or otherwise in introducing the procedure. My real concern is that future offences may well just come through the secondary legislation route, where the amount of scrutiny is somewhat limited. The Government propose using the procedure in the Bill initially for these offences, but nothing in the Bill suggests that the testing procedure the Government committed to in 2016 will actually be used to assess the procedure. Can the Minister confirm otherwise? That would be welcome.
As Transform Justice has pointed out, there is no evidence in the public domain about the online motoring conviction system, which was introduced in 2015. There is no public access to the postal charge paperwork, nor to the online form. There is no public data on how many people respond to the postal charge—we covered that point already—or how many complete the form online. There is also no data on how many people plead guilty or not guilty, or on the sanctions received.
The Government consulted on the automatic online conviction proposal in 2016, and many of the respondents raised concerns. None have been allayed in the interim. Indeed, the single justice procedure, which the procedure builds on, had only been in use for one year when the Government consulted on the online procedure. Since then, much more information about the workings and indeed failings of the single justice procedure has come to light. The Government have not explained how the current issues with the single justice procedure would not simply translate across to the AOCSSP procedure, or even be exacerbated, given the removal of any human oversight. JUSTICE has also said that it is not aware of any similar system deployed in other jurisdictions from which any advantages or disadvantages could be studied.
For those reasons, the Opposition believe that amendment 45 is vital. Significant changes to our justice system should be evidence based, and making evidence-based decisions now will save the Government and the justice system a lot of problems further down the line. I appreciate that I have sought rather a lot of information from the Minister thus far, but we are very keen that we go down the route where we get it right. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts.
It is a pleasure to have you back in the Chair, Sir Mark, after your brief absence. That was a very important set of questions. Obviously, I am speaking particularly to amendment 45. Other amendments have been tabled to the clause and I think we will end up covering everything. I will try to answer the main questions, but hopefully by the time we get to stand part we will have broadly covered all the key questions.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, and wish the same to him. He has a different style and approach from the hon. Member for Hammersmith, but they make an interesting pair, and I look forward to further jousting and deliberations on the Bill. The hon. Member for Stockton North said that it is not all the pandemic. He is right: most of the difficult decisions about funding criminal justice had to be made in the 2010-15 Parliament. There is a good reason for that. It was not a pandemic; it was inheriting a catastrophic economic position because of the mismanagement of the previous Government.
I am talking about 2010. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that there is no parallel universe in which difficult decisions did not have to be made. Had Labour stayed in power in 2010, they would have made significant cuts to the Ministry of Justice. That is a fact, but we are here today and looking to the future, and the future is digital. Digitalisation offers many ways to improve and streamline justice, but of course we must ensure that safeguards are in place. I will come to a few of the specific questions, and then to the amendment.
Probably the most important question is what happens if the defendant does not receive notification of the charge or conviction. How will they respond? What do we do? We may be confusing two procedures. There is the single justice procedure, and there is the new procedure—I simply call it the automatic procedure. The hon. Gentleman is right: even the acronym is impossible to remember, let alone the full name. In the SJP, it is worth stressing that defendants who have no knowledge of proceedings brought against them via summons or requisition until after a magistrates court has begun to try the case will be able to make a statutory declaration to restart the proceedings—that is, for example, if the correspondence was sent to the wrong address. To reassure all colleagues, in the automatic procedure, the person considered has to opt in. If they do not receive notification, that procedure will not be used. It is fairly straightforward, and an important safeguard.
Can my hon. Friend confirm what would happen if somebody did not receive the post, the case went to court, and they were convicted in their absence? Could that happen, or would they have to be informed?
That is a very good question. To be clear, they have to opt in. If they received it and did not respond, they would not have been able to opt in. Therefore, the online procedure would not have taken place. I understand why my hon. Friend asks that question.
The previous Government consulted on this proposal from September to November 2016. The Government’s response in February 2017 to their consultation on transforming our justice system set out their intention to proceed with the new automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty procedure, otherwise known as an acronym that I will not attempt, interesting as it is.
Open justice is a very important question. The hon. Member for Stockton North, as a former journalist, will very much respect the fact that matters of justice are of intense interest to the media and to journalists, and he is right that it is important in our democracy that we give them that access. We have to ask how much interest there would be in someone who has not paid a fine on an unlicensed fishing rod and so on, but to be clear, case information, including details of cases to be considered and outcomes, will be made available to the media and other interested parties in line with the criminal procedure rules.
The common platform is a very important question. There is possibly a slight confusion, which I can understand, as it is complex and there are lots of different clauses and procedures. Strictly speaking, in using the automatic procedure, the defendant is not using the common platform. It is a separate public-facing interface.
The common platform is used by practitioners and the criminal justice system. Clauses 6 and 8 relate to the common platform, because in those cases, the person would have to have legal representation because they could not enter, for example, an early plea online because it has to be done through the common platform and that has to be done through a practitioner. To be clear, there is a difference.
On the question about low incomes, which is perfectly fair, I will make two points. First, before deciding whether to opt for the procedure, users will be given clear information on the best option for ensuring that any mitigating circumstances can be made clear. Secondly, more importantly for people on low incomes, or anyone such as a jobbing plumber who is working hard, who is self-employed or who works shifts, the question is whether they can easily afford to give up a day to go to court. The measure is favourable to such people, notwithstanding the fact that—let us be honest—one is assuming that they are guilty, they have looked at all the information and they have decided that they would rather do it online than give up their day to go to court, which could be relatively expensive for them.
I am interested in the issue of people having a day in court or saving a day off work. Many people will make the wrong decision when they come into contact with the justice system in that way. Is there not a real concern about individuals who do not know what they are doing, who may have mental health problems or other disabilities, and who cannot make the right decision? A day off work would not actually matter.
To be clear, I am not talking about a day off work. If they go into court, the issue is not having the income—for example, if someone is self-employed. It may be less of an issue for someone who is permanently employed; it depends on their contract. I think it is important for people to have the option, particularly if they are time poor. I stress that it is a choice.
What information will be provided in the letters when they are sent out, so that people can make the right choice? If the hypothetical plumber chooses to pay a fine, which may be less than the money that he would lose from missing a day’s work, he may think that he is financially better off because he is not going to court. Assuming that he is innocent, however, how will he get information about the consequences of the record? Will that be provided in the letters?
The answer is very simple. If the person concerned is innocent and pleads not guilty, the case is heard in court. This procedure is for people who are guilty and wish to plead guilty online to save themselves the hassle of going to court, given that they are guilty.
I wanted to address the issues in amendment 49 that we discussed at the evidence session with Justice, which is the class of case that will be dealt with through the system. I raise it now because the Minister is talking about the ease of going through the automatic procedure. Is he not concerned that people will be tempted to plead guilty just to get it over with, and will then find that they have a conviction? In my experience as a trade union officer, people accepted a caution because it got it out of the way, but then found that they had a criminal record that they had to declare to their employer.
It is a good question. I respect the hon. Lady’s background before she became an MP and she speaks with a lot of experience. These are non-recordable offences, such as not being in possession of a valid ticket on a train or tram or having an unlicensed fishing rod. They are all non-recordable, so they will not result in a criminal record.
I will amend what I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. When I said “if a person is innocent”, I meant to say “if they intend to plead not guilty.” It is a semantic point but important to get right.
I have a genuine question. If the provision is extended to other offences, is it the Government’s intention that any offences dealt with will be non-recordable in that way?
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North made some really thoughtful points, which the Minister is now addressing. What I am getting at is that the court appearance is a sort of framing event, and that can work both ways. First, it avoids trivialising the offence: it concentrates on it, is public and has the effect of exhibiting the offence to the wider world. Secondly, it acts as a way of thinking about where the offence is going—there may be legal advice, the court itself may be able to advise and the process of going to court may alter the defendant’s disposition. Has the Minister thought about all that and about the type of offences to which the provision might apply in future?
If I address that, I will be straying into the territory of future amendments. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should say that we will cover those issues in considerable detail.
I will now crack on with the remainder of my comments about amendment 45, which is about a review. I appreciate that this is a very new type of procedure for dealing with certain minor offences and that we cannot be certain of its impacts. However, we are committed to reviewing the operation of the procedure, which is why we are proceeding with caution.
Only three offences have initially been proposed for prosecution under the new procedure: failure to produce a ticket for travel on a train; failure to produce a ticket for travel on a tram; and fishing with an unlicensed rod and line. As part of this initial implementation phase, we will carefully monitor and review the potential impacts of the procedure before we consider whether to extend it any further. The procedure has a number of safeguards, which I will set out in further detail when we discuss the next group of amendments and during the stand part debate. I want to stress that the procedure is entirely optional and that it will remain the defendant’s choice whether they wish to proceed with an automatic online conviction or opt for a traditional hearing in court.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response and recognise that there are other issues to cover, which I mentioned in my speech; there are other amendments as well.
I am pleased to hear the Minister commit to carrying out a proper review of the procedure, as that is what the amendment sought. I see no need to press it to a vote. I thank him for his input and look forward to developing some of these issues during debates on the remaining amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(1) Before this section may be commenced, the Secretary of State must publish—
(a) an equalities assessment concerning the impact the automatic online conviction and penalty process will have on individuals with protected characteristics, as defined in the Equality Act 2010; and
(b) an impact assessment on the effective participation for defendants with vulnerabilities, and must lay such assessment before Parliament.”
This amendment would mandate the Secretary of State to publish assessments regarding the impact of Clause 3 on individuals with protected characteristics as defined in the Equality Act 2010 before its commencement, as well as those with vulnerabilities.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
‘(1) Before this section may be commenced, the Secretary of State must publish statutory guidance which sets out how prosecutors should provide and explain to defendants any information contained within the required documents in an accessible way.”
This amendment will mandate the Secretary of State to publish guidance for prosecutors on how to ensure that defendants fully understand the information provided to them.
Amendment 48, in clause 3, page 5, line 32, at end insert—
“(e) the prosecutor is satisfied that the accused has engaged a legal Representative”.
The amendment would provide that the accused cannot be convicted online via the AOCSSP procedure without legal assistance.
Amendment 57, in clause 3, page 5, line 32, at end insert—
“(e) the prosecutor is satisfied that the accused does not have any vulnerabilities and disabilities that impede the ability of the accused to understand or effectively participate in proceedings, having undertaken a physical and mental health assessment.”
This amendment would require that all accused persons considered for automatic online convictions are subject to a health assessment, and that only those who do not have any vulnerabilities or disabilities are given the option of being convicted online.
Amendment 50, in clause 3, page 6, line 6, at the end insert—
“(d) a document in clear and accessible language which—
(i) explains the consequences of agreeing to an automatic online conviction and penalty; and
(ii) directs the accused to legal advice and information.”
This amendment would include further information about the consequences of engaging with the automatic online conviction process and a signpost to legal advice within the required documents that are sent to the defendant.
I thank Justice and Fair Trials again for their helpful input into these amendments. As a set, the amendments all deal with the need for safeguards in the procedure—we know the procedure that we are referring to—both by identifying possible issues before the procedure is used and by building in safeguards to the procedure itself. The Minister may think that he has covered the bases, but I want to help him to ensure that the belt and braces are in place, to best support justice.
Amendment 46 would mandate the Secretary of State to publish assessments on the impact of clause 3, before its commencement, on individuals with protected characteristics as defined in the Equality Act 2010, as well as on those with vulnerabilities. I have just spoken at length about amendment 45 and the need for the provisions in clause 3 to be well evidenced before they are implemented; amendment 46 addresses that point further. I am aware of the equalities impact statement, published alongside the Bill, which states that, in relation to the criminal procedures section of the Bill:
“we do not expect these changes to have a negative impact on any particular group, as the majority of these measures are designed to make the criminal court process easier for all court users by offering additional ways in which people can engage with the court that will significantly improve user experience and reduce user costs.”
Some may think that that’s all right then, but it certainly is not. The Government’s equality impact assessment deals with the impact of the procedure in two paragraphs and only discusses issues relating to income levels. However, there is evidence, predominantly from the single justice procedure, that suggests that the new procedure may disproportionately impact individuals with protected characteristics.
Stephanie Needleman, the acting legal director of Justice, shared such concerns with the Committee in the evidence session last week. She mentioned women as a group of concern, as the existing single justice procedure disproportionately targets women. APPEAL’s Women Justice Initiative notes,
“the vast majority of those being prosecuted and convicted of TV licence evasion are women.”
Its research shows what can happen in the absence of sufficient safeguards, with women facing criminal records despite not having received a letter, or where the letter was sent to the wrong address. Although there are issues that can affect anyone who receives a postal charge, the fact that women are more likely to commit certain so-called low-level offences means they are impacted to a greater extent. The Government’s impact assessment does not recognise that, and therefore does not suggest anything to address the issue. It is important that this disparity is recognised and is not replicated in this procedure. Stephanie Needleman he also raised concern about the potential impact on disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, particularly as the new procedure has such minimal safeguarding built in.
The Opposition believe it is vital that further research is done to ensure that disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority individuals are not unduly criminalised through procedures that contain weaker safeguards than are currently provisioned under the single justice procedure. We are also concerned that the impact assessment makes no attempt to look at whether the new procedure will have a disproportionate impact on neurodivergent individuals or others living with mental health conditions and other disabilities. Justice’s report “Mental Health and Fair Trial” notes that criminal justice processes often do not account for an individual’s particular needs, which may hamper their ability to understand what is happening. This concern is then amplified within the single justice procedure where there is lack of opportunity to screen for health conditions or vulnerabilities and assess whether the process is suitable.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. I agree with a lot of what he says and I know the Minister will too, because he has been very sensible about the need to review this and consider it carefully before it is extended. In addition to the groups that the hon. Gentleman identifies, there are simply older people—people who do not have the wherewithal to navigate systems. They may not be people with mental health issues, although I take the point about that. They may simply be people who are not comfortable with online transactions. I would rather see far fewer things put online, by the way—I would like a move in the opposite direction in life and in the provision of public services generally, but the hon. Gentleman is not pressing for that; I am far more radical than him, I can tell. I hope he would include in his assessment, and I hope the Minister will too, those people who may simply struggle with online services.
The right hon. Gentleman makes my case for me. I am most grateful to him. My dad is 90 and my mother is 88; she sadly has dementia but my dad still looks after her. As someone who is on the ball, I think he would really struggle in this sort of situation. I would not want that.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s very positive response to the first amendment. I am sure he is moving in my direction and I am very grateful. Perhaps when we come to a vote, the right hon. Gentleman will join me in saying, “Aye!” at the appropriate moment.
Some might say he had gone a long time ago.
We are worried that the issue will only be further exacerbated by the new procedure, with the removal of any form of human oversight and involvement in the process at all. As I said in my earlier speech, the new process may represent a significant shift in our justice system as we look to increase the use of technology to maximise efficiency, but it is important that we do not take the step without knowing what it will entail for all types of defendants and place appropriate mitigations in place. The Government’s assessment further states:
“However, as is the case more generally across England and Wales, there is over-representation of certain people in the criminal justice system with protected characteristics”,
which will affect some of the proposed measures.
It sounds to me like the Government are simply accepting disproportionality as an inevitable consequence of our criminal justice system. That is simply not good enough, and that is why we want the Minister to go further with all these protections. It is also why the Opposition would like to see a more detailed equality impact assessment of clause 3 before it is commenced, as that will allow the Government to address the issues now rather than waiting until disproportionality is further exacerbated—when they say that they are committed to reducing it.
Let me move to amendment 47, which would mandate the Secretary of State to publish guidance for prosecutors on how to ensure that defendants fully understood the information provided to them. I give notice, Sir Mark, that without the appropriate response from the Government, I intend to press the amendment to a vote.
The Bill’s only criterion on which defendants are appropriate for the new procedure is that they are aged 18 when charged. Vulnerable individuals, especially those who might not understand the charge, any documents sent to them or the consequences of pleading guilty will therefore be placed at a disadvantage by that process. Furthermore, as Fair Trials has noted,
“the Bill does little to ensure that plea decisions are made knowingly and voluntarily. The European Court of Human Rights has stated that one of the safeguards necessary to ensure compliance of trial waivers with the right to a fair trial is that ‘the bargain had to be accepted… in full awareness of the facts of the case and the legal consequences and in a genuinely voluntary manner.’ In theory, that requirement could be satisfied if accused persons have in fact understood the consequences of their plea and entered into the procedure voluntarily, however the Bill does not contain adequate provisions to ensure that that is the case.”
Those are not my words, but those of Fair Trials.
We think that the Government guidance to prosecutors on how they should provide and explain the information to defendants could help to allay that lacuna in the Bill. I would be interested in the Minister’s thoughts on that point, especially as it links to the point I made earlier about the lack of scrutiny and inspection with respect to the prosecuting bodies bringing charges under the procedure.
The question that we are interested in is how we can ensure that prosecuting bodies are enabled and supported to engage in the procedure in a way that supports the defendant’s rights and access to justice. Government guidance to prosecutors is just one way of doing that, and I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on others, including any that Departments have already mooted.
We tabled amendments 50 and 57 to address the point of ensuring that vulnerable individuals understand and can engage with the new process, so I shall jump slightly ahead and speak to them now. Amendment 50 is straightforward and would mandate the inclusion of further information about the consequences of engaging with the automatic online conviction process and a signpost to legal advice in the required documents sent to the defendants.
Again, Fair Trials has referred to documents relating to the Bill:
“There is no explicit mention of the need for defendants to be informed of their rights and the wide range of implications of pleading guilty—and if such information has been provided, there is no way of ensuring that it has been sufficiently understood.”
The Opposition therefore believe that an additional required document must be added that sets out the consequences of agreeing to a guilty plea under the new procedure and to signpost the defendant to high-quality legal advice and information. That should all be provided in the clearest and most accessible language possible to ensure that as many defendants as possible understand the procedures they are engaging in.
Let me turn to amendment 57, which is perhaps the most important amendment in this group for the Government to engage with as it goes to the heart of protecting individuals with vulnerabilities. The amendment would require that all accused persons considered for automatic online convictions were subject to a health assessment and that only those with no vulnerabilities or disabilities should be given the option of being convicted online. I appreciate that the feasibility of that might be limited, but the Opposition strongly believe that some level of screening needs to be put in place, so we have tabled the amendment. We would, however, be keen to work with the Government to identify a screening process that was more feasible, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on how that might work.
We believe that it must be incumbent on prosecutors to consider the appropriateness of the procedure for defendants, taking into account any potential vulnerabilities. For prosecutors to do so, the vulnerabilities need to be identified. As Fair Trials explains:
“Automated decision-making systems pose significant risks to neuro-diverse people, and people with mental health conditions or cognitive impairments. Many of these defendants already face serious disadvantages that affect their ability to participate effectively in legal proceedings, which will be worsened where there are reduced opportunities for in-person, physical interactions with the court.”
“The Equality and Human Rights Commission has stated that remote justice is unsuitable for disabled people, such as those with learning difficulties, cognitive impairments or mental health conditions. It noted that such proceedings lead to a loss or reduction of ‘opportunities to identify impairments and make adjustments’. The EHRC were also concerned that the emergency use of remote justice may ‘place protected groups at further disadvantage and deepen entrenched inequality.’”
Furthermore, a recent criminal justice joint inspectorate report emphasised the need for default screening of all criminal suspects and defendants for disability, including neuro-disability. That proposal was supported by the former Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, who in July 2021 stated that
“screening is absolutely essential if we’re really going to get to the heart of the needs of those who come into contact with the criminal justice system”.
He went on to say that it is “an ineluctable truth”—I have tried to pronounce that word a dozen times—that
“the number of people in the system with that type of need is disproportionately higher than the rest of the general population", and that it is an issue that he “hears every day”. He even promised that “there will be action”. However, the Bill makes no effort whatever to address that.
Again, as Fair Trials recognises:
“The nature of online proceedings as proposed in the Bill are such that defendants are denied physical access to courts altogether, or that such access is delayed until later stages in the proceedings or during appeals. This removes opportunities to screen for and identify disabilities, impairments, or other factors that affect a defendant’s ability to participate knowingly and effectively in the proceedings, thereby enabling appropriate adjustments to be made.”
I am aware that the explanatory notes state that
“a full hearing at court will always be available when needed and where the court considers it to be in the interests of justice”,
but in the absence of effective processes for identifying vulnerabilities, that is meaningless.
The Government’s fact sheet suggests that legal representatives
“will be able to identify any vulnerabilities”,
but the majority of lawyers are not specialists in mental health and disability, and it is not fair for the burden of identifying hidden disabilities to be placed on them.
Transform Justice illustrates the issue well, stating that
“unrepresented defendants who plead online will not meet a lawyer. Many defendants may receive a postal requisition for a crime, having been interviewed unrepresented. So, unless all those who are encouraged to plead online are subject to a health assessment, reasonable adjustments will not be made. Assisted Digital (the service offered by HMCTS) is inadequate for this purpose since it is only accessed by those confident enough to open the postal charge, who understand they need help, who can pay to phone HMCTS, and who know they have a right to access to the Assisted Digital service.”
There is simply not enough protection in the new process to ensure that those with vulnerabilities are not adversely impacted. Without those appropriate screening measures, the Opposition will not be able to support the clause.
Amendment 48 would provide that the accused could not be convicted online via the new procedure without having had legal assistance. While the Bill limits the procedure to summary non-imprisonable offences, the consequences of a conviction for many of these offences are still serious. As Justice notes:
“Punishments that do not result in a custodial sentence can have significant consequences for an individual—not least a criminal record”—
I take the Minister’s point about the current charges covered by the clauses—
“increased motor insurance costs, potential social stigma, and loss of employment or educational opportunities.
It is concerning that those charged with a criminal offence may choose to take the ‘easy option’ of using the” new procedure
“without fully understanding the consequences of doing so.”
The Bill does not require a defendant to have legal advice or representation to be subject to the new procedure, so it will, in effect, be a do-it-yourself set-up that allows defendants to be convicted and sentenced through an automated process, without any effective support or assistance. I agree with Fair Trials that
“there is a worrying risk that” defendants
“will be waiving their rights unknowingly.”
Ensuring that defendants were at least assisted by a lawyer would guarantee at least some human oversight of the process. Fair Trials also points out that unless another effective mechanism is put in place to
“carry out an assessment of the defendant’s vulnerabilities, legal assistance provides an important safeguard helping to ensure that people with cognitive impairments or severe mental health conditions do not unknowingly opt into automated decision-making processes.”
Indeed, that is very much the case. The Minister talked about how a conviction made by a magistrate in the absence of a defendant can always be challenged down the line. I do not see where that fits with respect to this, and I hope the Minister will explain it.
I stress that I do not think that this is the ideal safeguard for identifying individuals with vulnerabilities—legal professionals are trained primarily in the law, not to identify issues relating to vulnerabilities. I have already said that that is not their responsibility and I do not want the Government to think that the Opposition are advocating placing that safeguarding burden on the legal profession. We are certainly not doing that. We are, however, in favour of more safeguards being built into the system. This is an important safeguard for all defendants, not just those with vulnerabilities.
As I said earlier, I am aware of the Government’s intention for online pleas to be entered via the common platform, which I understand might seem to address the concerns we express here. As it is not in the primary legislation, however, we do not feel sufficiently reassured, which is to say nothing of the ongoing issues with the common platform—I understand the senior presiding judge has told Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to halt the roll-out until it has been stable for at least three weeks.
I appreciate that the Government have looked at the matter, but I want to ensure that this works in some way, even if we do not agree with the method. I would therefore welcome the Minister’s thoughts on strengthening the safeguards in the legislation.
I will come to the specific amendments, but, once again, some wider points have been made. An interesting one, made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, was about whether the broad thrust of policy should be somehow to regress towards being more paper based than online.
That was a serious point. It was interesting that, in evidence, Aidan O’Neill from the Scottish Law Society—I asked him about the Scottish experience of the pandemic and use of technology, although my right hon. Friend will know of other areas of his expertise—made some positive observations about how technology had in many ways enabled access to justice to be maintained during the pandemic, precisely because people who would otherwise not be able to appear in court or take part in tribunals or other cases were able to do so because of the technology.
My view is that, while we have to have safeguards—I therefore totally agree with the hon. Member for Stockton North that we should go through the details of the safeguards—in principle we should never discount the sense in which technology gives more access to justice. After all, a generation of people do not have printers—they work not off paper, but off their phone. They might even feel slightly excluded if they cannot do things online.
That might seem like a strange point and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, some older generations might find that extraordinary. To be clear, however, someone could be not even analogue, but completely paper-based in how they work. My parents are pretty much like that if I am completely honest. These offences obviously exist in the single justice procedure, which is paper based. Or, as I have said throughout, people could simply opt to have their case heard in court in the traditional way.
I do not want to delay the Minister because I am keen to get on myself, but the point really is not so much the test of convenience, which is the one he is describing, or even the test of accessibility; it is more the absence of personal interaction. The problem with moving to technologically based systems, across the private and public sectors, is that we take people out of the equation, and actually people are the cleverest thing we have. They have imagination and intuition, and sensitivity and understanding. When we systemise things, we risk losing all those virtues. By the way, long before I came here, I was in the information technology industry, so I remember well knowing that then, just as I know it now.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. There are some things that should always be done in person. A good example is parliamentary debates because we need interventions. When we had people appearing on a television screen, unable to intervene, how could we hold them to account for what they said? However, in the legal system—the Bill underscores this—some things must be done in person, and in respect of which the resource is so precious. Of course, we are talking particularly about trials in the Crown court, which are the most serious cases. A huge part of our focus is digitising relatively—I say that word carefully—straightforward or less serious procedures, so that we maximise at every turn the physical, in-person resource for the most important proceedings. That is important.
Before turning to the amendments, I will make one further point on the position of vulnerable defendants and give slightly more information, because this is a fair point. The procedure will operate in a similar way to the current written charge and requisition procedure, and the single justice procedure. Prosecutors using those methods of initiating proceedings have developed procedures for identifying those who may need additional support. Support channels will also be available to users who require clarification of information and processes ranging from web chat or telephone assistance to more intensive face-to-face assistance. The Department has recently awarded a new contract for significant support in that area, and I am happy to provide more information later.
Amendment 46 would require the Government to publish an equalities and impact assessment before the commencement of clause 3. When the Bill was introduced, an equalities assessment and an impact assessment were published on all the measures, including the new automatic online procedure. As such, we have already given consideration to the impact that the measure could have on those with vulnerabilities and protected characteristics, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East mentioned. We have recognised that the steps we are taking to digitalise criminal court procedures have the potential to affect groups that are less digitally enabled. That is why we will ensure that the online processes are easy to follow and understand, and that support channels, ranging from web chat or telephone assistance to more intensive face-to-face assistance, will be available to all defendants who might need them, as I said earlier.
The new procedure is completely optional, and it will remain the defendant’s choice whether they wish to proceed with automatic online conviction or opt for a traditional hearing in court. The number of disabled people using the internet is increasing, and defendants with certain disabilities might in fact welcome the introduction of a new online procedure, which will reduce their need to travel to court unnecessarily and enable them to resolve their case quickly in the comfort of their own home. As I say, the new procedure can improve access to justice in some respects. I agree that it is important to monitor its impact, including on those with vulnerabilities, and we will do so on the three offences initially before we consider whether to extend the procedure further.
Amendment 57 would require all defendants charged with an eligible offence to submit to an assessment of their physical and mental health before a prosecutor could decide whether it would be appropriate to offer them the option to proceed with the new automatic online procedure. The hon. Member for Stockton North made a reasonable case, and I share his concerns that the new procedure should only be used appropriately—that word is so important. As I think I said on Second Reading in my summing up, I am someone who is I would not quite say evangelical about, but strongly supportive of, using the internet to create efficiencies, improve access, increase productivity and ensure all those benefits; nevertheless, we have to have safeguards.
As I have already set out, that is why we have built a number of safeguards into clause 3. For example, a prosecutor will offer this online option to a defendant only once they have considered all the facts of a case and deemed it suitable for the procedure. All the options will be explained clearly to defendants offered the procedure, including their right to come to court if they wish to and the potential consequences of their choosing this route. Defendants who decide to opt into the new procedure will be guided through the process, and will have access to both telephone support and face-to-face support if they should need them.
Clause 3 also provides the court with the power to set aside a conviction in the event that the defendant did not understand the consequences of their decision to accept the conviction. The effect of the amendment may be to deter some people from using a procedure whose speed and simplicity they would otherwise welcome. Indeed, there would be no reason for defendants to opt for the new procedure if the resolution of their case would be swifter under existing procedures, such as the single justice procedure, where no mental or health assessment is required.
Amendment 47 would place an additional duty on the Secretary of State to publish statutory guidance before clause 3 could be commenced. As proposed, this would be guidance setting out how prosecutors should provide and explain to defendants any information in the required documents. Clause 3 already provides for guidance under the criminal procedure rules to set out the detail of how required documents should be served on a defendant offered the new automatic online procedure.
As I have said, under the procedure defendants will be provided with all the information they need to make an informed decision, and that will be written in a clear and accessible way. The information will include details of the evidence against them, the potential consequences of choosing this route and full details of the prospective fine. Similar information is already provided on the single justice procedure notice currently sent out to defendants, which is drafted and regularly reviewed in consultation with a wide range of user groups.
If it is helpful, I will be more than happy to provide every member of this Bill Committee, either by email or even through the post if necessary, a sample of the single justice procedure, to show how it looks. I think that once members see it, they will agree that it is very clear. It is similar to what will be used in the new procedure.
Amendment 47 would require all defendants to have engaged a legal representative before a prosecutor could offer them the option to proceed with the new automatic online procedure. I stress that only summary-only, non-imprisonable offences that are straightforward and simple to prove will be eligible for the new procedure. As such, we intend the design of the procedure to be simple enough to ensure that it can be used without legal assistance.
Defendants would need to opt in actively to the procedure and could choose at any point prior to accepting the conviction to have their case heard in court instead—when they wish to plead not guilty or want the court to consider mitigating factors, for instance.
Amendment 47 is unnecessary and would contradict current practice where, generally speaking, cases of this type do not normally attract legal aid and the vast majority of defendants already represent themselves, whether under the single justice procedure or in court. That is an important point to stress—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Sir Mark.
This is a new procedure; it is a new means of realising whatever the outcome of a case is. It is not a new form of justice—let me be absolutely clear about that. People plead guilty or not guilty to these offences every day and in the overwhelming majority of cases there is no legal representation because the cases are straightforward. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Stockton North, but I hope he is reassured by the fact that defendants will be advised of their right to obtain legal advice under the procedure and will be entitled to request a full trial and obtain counsel at any time during the process if they so wish.
Amendment 50 proposes to insert an additional level of detail into primary legislation, which I would argue is unnecessary. It would require the documents served on defendants to explain the consequences of agreeing to an automatic online conviction and penalty, and direct the defendant to legal advice and information.
We have already been clear that defendants will be provided with all the information they need to make an informed decision. That specifically includes making sure that they are aware of the consequences of entering a guilty plea and accepting a conviction. The notice and online process for the procedure will be very similar to the one for the single justice procedure, which clearly sets out the consequences of making a plea. As I have said, I am happy to send copies of the single justice procedure document to colleagues.
The notice that defendants receive formally commences proceedings for the offences and gives them a set period of time in which to respond. The notice will advise defendants to use this time to obtain legal advice. As I said before, only summary-only, non-imprisonable offences that are straightforward and simple to prove will be eligible under the new procedure. As such, we intend the design of the procedure to be simple enough to be used without legal assistance.
I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton North will be reassured by the fact that we intend to implement the procedure for a small number of offences to begin with and will carefully review how it operates before deciding whether to extend it any further.
I welcome the Minister’s assurance that the procedure will not be extended. However, he has just mentioned that the offences to be considered under the procedure will be reviewed. Concern was expressed during our evidence sessions that the procedure might be extended to other offences, so what further reassurance can the Minister give on that issue?
I was just about to conclude, but I think I am due to cover that point in detail when dealing with the other groups of amendments. If I am mistaken, I will make sure that it is covered, but I think I will go into more detail about that issue later, if the hon. Lady will forgive me.
As I have set out, we already have the appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that defendants are fully informed of their options under the new procedure. These amendments are therefore unnecessary, and I urge the hon. Member for Stockton North to withdraw them.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. We have tabled these amendments because we want to be helpful—we are not trying to be difficult. We want to ensure that there is fair justice with fair access, and that justice is done for everyone at the end of the day.
I accept much of what the Minister said, but I still have real concerns about the information provided and the systems for providing that information. He has referred to what is included in the Bill, but I am still very concerned about how people will get the right information from the right person in order to make the correct decision, and I am most concerned about the vulnerable.
The other issue, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon, is about what the next tranche of offences could be. Will we get to a point where more serious offences will fall under that process and will be recordable offences, which will have all the impacts on employment that we described earlier?
Amendment proposed: 47, in clause 3, page 4, line 29, at beginning insert—
“(1) Before this section may be commenced, the Secretary of State must publish statutory guidance which sets out how prosecutors should provide and explain to defendants any information contained within the required documents in an accessible way.”—
This amendment will mandate the Secretary of State to publish guidance for prosecutors on how to ensure that defendants fully understand the information provided to them.
‘(4) An offence may not be specified in regulations under subsection (3)(a) unless it is—
(a) a summary offence that is not punishable with imprisonment; and
(b) a non-recordable offence, which excludes any offence set out in the Schedule to the National Police Records (Recordable Offences) Regulations 2000/1139 (as amended).”
This amendment would exclude any offences which are recordable from the automatic online conviction option.
I come to the Opposition’s final amendment to clause 3, although we have already strayed into the territory that this covers. Amendment 49 would exclude any offences that are recordable under the new procedure. I understand that the Government intend the procedure to apply only to summary or non-imprisonable offences, but we think that this needs to be further restricted.
Examples of recordable offences that the new procedure could cover include the offence of failing to provide for the safety of children at entertainments under section 12 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 or the offence of exposing children under 12 to the risk of burning under section 11 of that Act. Others are the offence of drunkenness in a public place under section 91 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 and the offence of selling alcohol to a person who is drunk, under section 141(1) of the Licensing Act 2003.
Particularly topical, given that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is in Committee in the other place, are the offence of failing to comply with conditions imposed on a public procession under section 12(5) of the Public Order Act 1986 or the offence of failing to comply with conditions imposed on a public assembly under section 14(5) of the Public Order Act 1986. The threshold for committing these offences will become significantly lower upon the introduction of part 3 of that Bill, where individuals could inadvertently commit an offence by causing “serious unease” or “noise”. Yet more examples relate to the sale of alcohol to children under the Licensing Act and a range of football offences, including the use of missiles and the chanting of racist language.
Those are just some illustrative examples. I do not believe that these sorts of offences are really appropriate for the new procedure, mostly because, as I have mentioned in my earlier speeches––it is important, so I stress it again––the consequences of conviction can still be extremely serious. The Government’s apparent justification for removing any human oversight in the procedure is that it will apply only to minor offences where the defendant faces no risk of imprisonment. But as Fair Trials points out,
“The absence of the risk of imprisonment should not, on its own, be a justification for trivialising criminal justice processes. Criminal convictions, even for minor offences (other than certain types of traffic offences), can have far-reaching and very serious implications on people’s lives and opportunities. The existence of a criminal record can, for example, seriously undermine someone's chances of finding employment, especially in certain sectors and professions (including nursing, social care, child-minding and teaching), accessing educational and training opportunities, obtaining certain types of insurance, or the ability to travel to certain countries. For those who are non-UK citizens, criminal records can affect the right to remain in the country.”
The Opposition believe that it is crucial that the procedure applies only to those offences for which convictions are unlikely to have these impacts on individuals’ rights and opportunities.
Justice has noted that it is likely that the new procedure
“as it currently stands, would act to incentivise individuals to plead guilty out of convenience, regardless of whether they have an arguable case. Without legal advice, this risk is all the more profound [and]… many will not fully appreciate the impact a conviction could have on their lives and future prospects.”
By limiting the new procedure to non-recordable offences only, we would ensure that automated convictions are limited only to the most minor offences, which do not appear on most criminal record checks. That would be a vital safeguard in the online conviction procedure.
I do not think we will be overly limiting the use of the new procedure if we include that further limitation. Between 40% and 45% of all criminal offence convictions each year are for non-recordable offences, so a significant proportion of cases could still be dealt with. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts.
This interesting amendment covers some of the questions from earlier. Clause 3 provides that only certain non-imprisonable and summary-only offences can be specified as eligible for the new automatic online procedure. Amendment 49 would restrict it further to non-recordable offences. That is straightforward enough.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the initial three offences proposed under the new procedure—failure to produce a ticket for travel on a train, failure to produce a ticket for travel on a tram, and fishing with an unlicensed rod and line—are non-recordable offences. In fact, the vast majority of eligible offences in scope are non-recordable, with only a couple of exceptions. There is currently no intention to extend the procedure to any recordable offences. Once we have reviewed how it operates, we might consider extending to other similar non-recordable offences, such as certain road traffic offences—for example, low-level speeding and driving without insurance. Clause 3 enables us to do so.
However, for an offence to be appropriate, it would have to be relatively straightforward and simple to prove, with no complex grounds and a high degree of consistency in sentencing. Prosecutors would also have the discretion, based on the individual facts of any given case, to not offer the option of the procedure for an eligible offence if they felt it would not be suitable. Furthermore, any extension of the procedure to additional offences would be subject to the affirmative procedure and done by regulations, which would have to be approved by Parliament.
That was a very interesting response. I think the Minister was confirming that what is in the amendment will, in fact, be the case going forward and that the Government will not seek to introduce any offences that would be recordable in the scenario I described. I ask the Minister why he does not accept the amendment if that is the Government’s intention. I invite him to intervene on me.
That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman. In this situation it is very standard to have a Bill with what is effectively a pilot. I would not quite say that it is formally a pilot, but it is effectively trialling these three non-recordable offences and will be reviewed.
However, as I said, any extension of the procedure to additional offences would be subject to the affirmative procedure and done by regulations that would have to be approved by Parliament. That is a very standard way of operating. We think that is more flexible. I do not want to invite a conspiracy that says there is a clear plan to move very soon to including recordable offences. As I say, there is currently no intention to extend the procedure to any recordable offences. We think that this way of legislating is perfectly standard. The amendment is not necessary.
I am afraid that although I accept that the Minister is an honourable man, I would like to see this measure nailed in legislation so that a future Government cannot start to introduce recordable offences. There is no guarantee from what the Minister said that that will not happen. New Ministers can change things. The amendment will ensure that they cannot go beyond the guarantee that the Minister has offered today, and I intend to press it to a vote.
It is nice to see you back in the Chair, Sir Mark. I just want to make some quick remarks in support of clause 3 stand part. First, it is about speeding up the system and tackling the backlog, which we have and have all heard about in the course of proceedings on the Bill. It is important that we get to grips with the backlog. Using online technology to help to remedy it is, I think, incredibly important, but I do not think it should be the only way we do that. If someone does not want it or have it, that should be up to them. Representing a constituency with a higher-than-average-age population, I certainly understand the fears and concerns that my constituents have when we talk about putting things online, because they always feel as though they will not be able to access them, and accessing justice is incredibly important.
The offences that we are talking about are summary offences. As we have heard, the provision will be used only in a small number of cases, whether it is the non-payment of a train or tram ticket or the possession of an unlicensed fishing rod or line. These matters have to be dealt with, and the provision for automatic online conviction—no pun intended—allows that to happen going forward. I do not think a physical court is needed for justice. We have seen that in the course of the pandemic. We have to remember that technology, in all aspects of life, is not going to go away.
I also support the clause because the defendant can choose. They do not have to do this, and rightly so. It is something that people can opt in to; they are not forced to do it. These days, many people may actually feel more comfortable in the online environment than they would in the traditional one. Although they have committed an offence and are pleading guilty to it, that does not mean that we should cause them unnecessary pain and anguish through going to a court, which they might feel very uncomfortable with. We have to think about protecting them in every way we can, while punishing them for the crime that they have committed.
As my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned before, it is important, particularly for those who are self-employed, who might have difficult work circumstances or who might have childcare issues to be able to access justice in this way. The Minister has already mentioned a number of the safeguards that are in place, and I thank him for that. Access to justice and the need to go to court are two very different things. I am pleased that the clause recognises that and I am very pleased to support it. I think that all of my constituents will be very pleased that our access to justice is not impeded by just having to go to court.
I will be brief, Sir Mark. This has been a very interesting debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North has put forward some points that the Minister has engaged with. I am not sure that we are entirely happy with the responses. Disposing of matters online, without going to court, is a significantly different way to do things and makes a lot of differences. Some of the examples that my hon. Friend gave included the ability to get advice, the ability to monitor the quality of proceedings—including the way that the prosecution puts its case—the accountability of the defendant, and justice being done in public. Yes, it is more convenient in some cases to be able to deal with everything online in the way that most of our lives are dealt with now, but criminal proceedings are an important event. There are now many fewer courts than there were, but the process of going to court and appearing there is significant. It concentrates the mind, and it is an event. It frames the offence, and it makes the defendant think about the consequences of their actions.
What most concerns me is the point about open justice, which is very easy to lose. I am conscious that this afternoon the Justice Committee is taking evidence on the issue in relation to an inquiry done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in which it tried to attend possession proceedings, which are ordinary in-chambers proceedings that go on every day in dozens of civil courts around the country. On a number of occasions, it was wrongly refused permission to proceed by the judge or the administrative clerk of the court, which is an increasing trend. It has been exacerbated by covid, because clearly much more has been done remotely during the pandemic. That may have been necessary, but when were are making changes to procedure, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is important not only that justice is done, but that it is seen to be done.
I am not persuaded that the clause has been sufficiently thought through at the moment. Therefore, I will listen to what the Minister and my hon. Friend may say in relation to that, but although the Government are aware of, and concede, the points that have been made, I do not think they have done enough to put safeguards in place. At the moment, I feel that we are not sufficiently reassured about the clause.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark.
I will move on from what I said this morning about dealing with my constituents. Again, I go back to what people say to me about these things on a daily and weekly basis: the law is only any good if it is enforced. The one thing that people see time and again is that somebody is caught in the act of doing something, yet it can take months to get them to court and to get them dealt with. That is bad for two reasons: it says a negative thing to law-abiding citizens, but it also means that charges are held over somebody’s head for a long time, which is no good. It is no good for people to have cases hanging over them. Punishment should be quick, cases should be dealt with, and people should move on very quickly, especially with small misdemeanours. The whole point of the clause is to clear the backlog in the courts. I have mentioned fly tipping, which is a real issue, and I know there have been backlogs with getting such offenders into court and dealing with them. The clause will expediate the court process and get swift justice to those who need it.
Before I was elected to this place, I got paid when I turned up to work. Other Members have referred to builders, plumbers and electricians, who do not have the luxury that a lot of people have. If they do not turn up for work, they can lose a day’s pay, which can be hugely costly to them, especially in these times. If they have made a small error, being able to deal with it very quickly online, maybe when they get in in the evening—saving them a day in court, which would increase anxiety for people—will be welcomed.
I will be brief and will not repeat the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith on open justice and the requirement for safeguards. I have two points to make, which relate to our previous debate. First, although I feel my trust in the Minister building this afternoon as time goes on, sadly I do not trust a future Conservative Minister who may well decide to use the powers that the Minister is attempting to take to himself to do things that I would hope none of us would approve of, through having a series of online cases that could lead to recordable offences. That could have an impact on people’s lives. For that reason, it is important that we do not support the clause.
Secondly, there is the issue about the information that defendants have. The Minister was at some pains to point out what is already in the Bill. The fact that vulnerable people may not get the support, or not even be identified if they use this particular system, is of great concern. That is the second reason, in addition to those that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned, why we will not support the clause.
It is interesting to have two shadows at once—I should probably take it as a compliment. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Hammersmith said that he would wait until he had heard my remarks and those of the hon. Member for Stockton North before taking his position. I hope the hon. Member for Stockton North has persuaded his hon. Friend. It is an interesting position, but there we are.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southport gave a very good speech. As he said, the physical court is not needed for justice in many ways these days. Of course, it is still crucial for many aspects of law. The best example is those big Crown court cases with a jury. There is no getting away from that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley mentioned the backlog. It is absolutely crucial that we remember that by increasing the use of digitisation, we free up resource elsewhere, effectively streamlining through the whole system.
We are not saying that this measure alone will clear the backlog—of course it will not, that is absurd—any more than the 180 days taken by Cart judicial reviews would somehow of themselves be the silver bullet to solve the backlog. I was obviously not saying that. It is the accumulation. If, for example, using this procedure causes less pressure or fewer cases to be heard physically in the magistrates court, the magistrates court in turn can hear more triable either-way cases coming from the Crown court. The whole point is a process to reduce the pressure and free up space where it is needed most, which is in those crucial cases in the Crown court, where the backlog is most severe.
We have gone through the main points and the safeguards in great detail, so I am not going to speak at great length. This is about choice. If a defendant wishes to plead not guilty or otherwise decides that they wish to have a hearing in a traditional courtroom or their case considered by a magistrate under the single justice procedure, the current arrangements will apply. By introducing this new online process for dealing with the most straightforward and minor offences, the measure will save court time, allowing magistrates to focus on the more serious cases and help deliver swifter justice. That is the essence of our case.
I have one final point to make, which is important to have on the record. I thank the Scottish Government for their support for this measure and note the legislative consent motion that they have approved. However, the motion contained within it reserves clauses that in the Government’s view do not engage the legislative consent motion process.