Pleading guilty or not guilty online: much the same as buying your groceries.

From a report at buzzfeed.com today: ‘Magistrates usually hear pleas in court, which means that even if someone does not have a lawyer, the magistrates or a court legal adviser can remind them of the implications of a decision. They are concerned that if online pleas are introduced in all cases, “there is a risk that defendants will indicate a plea without getting appropriate legal advice, possibly without realising the seriousness of the case.”

Online efficiencies are capable of making a positive contribution to criminal justice in our courts, but the taking of a plea is a critical event and should never take place from an armchair. Pleading guilty or not guilty will amount to not much more than buying your groceries. It will lose its importance and its value. Is that how we want things to be?

There are genuine fears that it is happening already with the implementation of section 22A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act. Facing a shoplifting charge valued at less than £200? No problem. It’s a dishonesty offence that carries stigma of its own kind. Justifiably. It goes on your criminal record, and if it’s your first time it will create a criminal record for you. It brings with it the obligation to disclose at, for examples, job interviews. All of these are just examples of how a decision to plead guilty can impact you significantly. But you can plead guilty to it from your armchair and never even go to court.

To hell with the implications and the life significance of this decision to plead guilty! Never mind the several pages’ worth of legal analysis on the meaning and description of the offence of theft in my 2019 editions of Archbold and Blackstones. Anyone can do it for themselves from their armchair!

I remember that I spent a good hour one night just before Christmas discussing the offence of theft with a colleague and my instructing solicitor, with both books open in front of me, in order to make sure that what the client was admitting actually fitted the definition of the offence of theft. Because that’s my job and I like to do it properly.

But who needs professionals like me in this new online age? Decide for yourself whether you’re guilty or not. Plead guilty by post from your armchair. You might not get it right; you might make a catastrophic decision for your future. But at least you will have done it cheaply.

Read the report by Emily Dugan at buzzfeed.com here.

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