Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The McDonaldization of justice and the disappearance of fair trial?

19-21 May 2022
Scarman House, University of Warwick, UK

11th Conference on the future of adversarial and inquisitorial systems

Are preoccupations with managerialism, cost-saving, preventive justice and the avoidance of trial supplanting the values of adversarial and inquisitorially rooted systems of criminal justice? What model of efficiency do these trends promote? As the trial becomes increasingly rare, along with opportunities to challenge the reliability of evidence, the accused finds herself encouraged to make an admission at the earliest opportunity based on the information gathered during the police investigation. The presence of defence counsel at strategic points in the process lends some legitimacy, but the practices of law reflect little of the safeguards and values so celebrated in the rhetoric of both adversarial and inquisitorial-type systems. Processes are being ‘simplified’ – not in ways that make the process clear and easy to navigate – but through the removal of fundamental safeguards deemed too costly and time-consuming such as juries, judicial investigation, or any form of trial or contestation of charges. Added to this are new types of evidence, gathered in as yet unregulated ways, the nature and provenance of which require careful scrutiny if they are to form the basis of prosecution and conviction. The result is what has been described by Ritzer as a kind of McDonaldization of criminal justice.

Most recently, the global pandemic as a result of COVID-19 has prevented in-person court hearings, resulting in trial delays, extended periods of detention for defendants, and spurring on the growth in virtual court hearings. It is clear that virtual courts in particular are seen as attractive and efficient in the processing of cases without requiring staff and witnesses to be in the same physical space. The impact of this on the fair trial rights of the accused will require careful scrutiny however.

Taking place in May 2022, several conference panels were devoted to discussion of these themes drawing on Hodgson’s The Metamorphosis of Criminal Justice (2020, OUP). In this work, through a comparative analysis of the potentially radical and fundamental changes taking place across two contrasting jurisdictions (England and Wales, and France), she explores the ways that criminal justice traditions continue to be shaped in different ways by broader policy and political concerns, and the ways in which different systems adapt, change and distort when faced with (sometimes conflicting) pressures domestically and externally. This comparative lens also illuminates the ways that, in England and Wales and in France, different procedural values may serve to structure or limit reform, and so work to facilitate or resist change.

From a comparative perspective, this conference invited consideration of core issues within this theme of McDonaldization. This included: how the defence is co-opted to provide guarantees that enable other safeguards to be reduced; the broad shift away from judicial and court roles, to a stronger prosecution function; ways of avoiding trial; the role of technology in new modes of trial; and machine learning (AI) in criminal justice.

This was the 11th conference in the series The Future of Adversarial and Inquisitorial Systems, a collaboration between the Universities of Warwick, North Carolina, Bologna, Basel and Duke University.

Thursday 19th May was devoted to presentations from Early Career Researchers 

The main conference took place on Friday 20th and the morning of Saturday 21st May.

The conference was free of charge with bursaries available for ECRs and PhD students, as part of the University of Warwick's Enhancing Research Culture strategy.