Thousands of rail fare dodgers could be dealt with online

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Thousands of rail and tram fare dodgers could have their cases dealt with over the internet under criminal justice reforms.

Defendants in selected low-level cases will be able to plead guilty and pay their fines without ever appearing in court.

Around 8,000 offences could potentially be handled online annually in the first phase of the scheme, officials estimate. This figure comprises 7,000 cases of travelling without a train or tram ticket a year, and 1,300 of fishing without a licence.

The new system will initially cover these two categories, but it could be widened to other offences such as TV licence evasion in future. 

Proposals for online convictions are among a raft of measures included in the Government's Prisons and Courts Bill, which will be debated by MPs in the House of Commons this week.

Under the scheme, defendants will be able to log on to an online system in cases identified as suitable by prosecutors.

When they indicate a desire to plead guilty, they will then be given the option of accepting an immediate conviction and standard penalty.

The move is part of efforts to streamline the magistrates' courts system, which handles around 890,000 minor cases every year which cannot attract a prison sentence and in which there is no identifiable victim.

Those who wish to plead not guilty, as well as people who want to have a traditional hearing for any other reason, will go to court as normal. 

The Bill also proposes an extension to the use of video links and virtual hearings which allow victims to take part in cases without having to meet their alleged attacker face to face.

Under the measures, a further 60,000 pre-trial hearings in the magistrates' court and 17,000 contested bail hearings can also take place by video, along with 30,000 pre-trial hearings in the crown court.

The Ministry of Justice says this will save around 34,000 hours of courtroom time.

Video booths will be installed in courts across England and Wales to allow members of the media and public to observe virtual hearings from court buildings.

Lists and results of cases that have taken place online, as well as those concluded in a physical courtroom, will also be available digitally under the plans.

Justice Minister Sir Oliver Heald QC said: "Britain has the best justice system in the world, but it should also be the most modern.

"Victims and the most vulnerable are at the centre of our changes, which will help deliver swifter and more certain justice for all."

In other measures unveiled over the weekend, alleged rape victims will be spared the ordeal of giving evidence in court. 

From September their cross-examinations will be pre-recorded and then played during the trial. 

Justice Secretary Liz Truss also announced that a new offence of sexual communication with a child will take effect next month.