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Magistrates sound warning over online guilty pleas

Plans for online guilty pleas for minor offences may be "unpalatable" to many people, magistrates have warned.

Under proposals put forward by the Ministry of Justice, hundreds of thousands of defendants could use a new website to view the penalty for the offence, accept a conviction and pay a fine.

Only minor non-imprisonable offences with no identifiable victim - like fare-dodging, some traffic offences and fishing without a licence - would be covered by the internet-based scheme and people pleading not guilty would still have to go to court.

But the Magistrates Association said it was concerned that a internet-only system could "lower public confidence in the criminal justice system".

While it did not object in principle to the online process as a first step towards a court hearing, the association warned that "a shift from legal hearings dealt with by the judiciary in open court to automated processes may be unpalatable for many people".

Association chairman Malcolm Richardson told The Times: "We're concerned about the principle of handling entire criminal cases without the involvement of independent judicial decision-makers.

"A core principle of our system is that justice is seen to be done, and we don't see how clicking a button and staring at a computer screen with no judicial involvement represents that. Furthermore, defendants' individual circumstances can't be considered through a wholly automated process for dealing with an offence."

A Ministry of Justice spokesman told the paper it had received "a significant number of responses" to a consultation process, adding: "We have been generally pleased with the constructive nature of the responses and we are now taking time to analyse and consider these views."

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