Minor cases to be dealt with online to free up courts in justice system shake-up

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Defendants in minor cases will be able to plead guilty and pay fines on the internet without ever attending court under justice reforms.

Ministers are planning to introduce a system which will allow some low-level offences to be dealt with entirely online.

The proposed scheme is expected to go live in around 18 months, starting with transport fare-dodging offences. 

It is understood that other cases that could be handled online include TV licence evasion, fly-tipping and speeding.

It is part of efforts to streamline the magistrates' courts system, which currently handles around 890,000 minor cases every year which cannot attract a prison sentence and in which there is no identifiable victim. In 2014/15 there were more than 90,000 prosecutions for alleged tram, train and bus fare evasion. 

Officials say many of the low-level cases that come before magistrates' courts are relatively simple and straightforward, and could be dealt with in a more proportionate way.

The plans would see defendants log on to an online system to see the evidence against them before entering a plea.

If they plead guilty, they would be able to opt in to an online system which allows them to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine. 

This would allow defendants to conclude their case faster and with greater certainty, and means magistrates and courts can focus their resources and attention where they are most needed, the Ministry of Justice said.

The measure is part of a £1 billion modernisation drive to be outlined in a joint paper from Justice Secretary Liz Truss, the Senior President of Tribunals Sir Ernest Ryder, and the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.

In another step, vulnerable victims and witnesses will no longer have to appear in court under new plans to roll out pre-trial evidence sessions.

Cross-examinations will be recorded and played during the trial - sparing victims and witnesses the stress of reliving traumatic events in open court.

It follows pilot programmes carried out at Crown Courts in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-upon-Thames.

The joint paper will also set out plans to make the system more straightforward by reducing legal jargon.

Ms Truss said: "We want a justice system that works for everyone. That means creating a system that is just, efficient and simple.

"We have the tools and the technology to cut unnecessary paperwork, to deliver swifter justice and to make the experience more straightforward.

"Most importantly these reforms will allow us to better protect victims and witnesses who can find the experience of reliving a traumatic event in court incredibly stressful."