Rail fare evaders are soon to be dealt with in virtual courts, pleading guilty online and paying fines instantly, thanks to the Prisons and Courts Bill, which MPs debated last week.
The rationale behind the proposals is that dealing with fare dodgers in virtual courts will encourage early guilty pleas and reduce the costs incurred in having traditional hearings.
However, what many people may not realise is that by doing pleading guilty online, they will receive a criminal conviction, even for committing the relatively minor offences that they might be inclined to dispute.
For example, people can be found guilty of a railway bylaw offence simply by not having a “valid ticket” when boarding a train. Unnervingly, there is no need for the rail company to establish that an individual intended to evade the fare or indeed was acting dishonestly when committing this offence.
More serious offences, such as travelling with intention to avoid payment of the fare, must be handled with extreme caution. Cases can even go as far as offences being alleged under the Fraud Act 2006, where the sums are large and the conduct has been going on for an extended period.
Offences under railway bylaws are generally non-recordable, but even a conviction for a non-recordable offence will normally remain on an individual’s police record forever. That could have an impact those working or wanting to embark on a regulated professional career, where an enhanced disclosure check is required.
Convictions for offences requiring intention will generally be recordable and therefore will emerge on a standard disclosure check. The impact of such convictions, even at a minor level, should not be taken lightly.
A conviction for rail fare evasion has the potential to affect a person’s ability to work in certain fields, as demonstrated in the case of Jonathan Burrows, a former managing director of Blackrock Asset Management, who was banned for life by the Financial Conduct Authority from any senior role in the financial services after being exposed as an extreme fare dodger.
The right to remain in this country for those who are not British citizens can also be affected by convictions.
When the bill is enacted, people falling foul of the law must remember that the consequences can be serious. The number one rule is: do not panic and take legal advice at the earliest opportunity.
Do not ignore correspondence and keep in mind, the quick fix of a digital plea may not be the end of the matter.
This article was originally published in The Brief, and can be found here.