An evidence session was held last week (25 June 2019) by the House of Commons Justice Committee on the digital court and tribunal reforms (Oral evidence: court and tribunal reforms
, HC 1886). The committee, which is chaired by the Conservative MP and barrister, Bob Neill, heard from expert witnesses about the impact of the changes on access to justice. Some witnesses raised concerns about the effectiveness of the support services being offered to users.
Legal tech expert, Professor Richard Susskind, told the committee: ‘In many respects, how we deliver justice seems to be out of step in a digital society.’ He stressed that ‘[w]e are transitioning from one system to another’ and it is ‘not a big‑bang revolution’; rather the digital processes would gradually evolve through an ‘agile incremental process’ as you ‘cannot change the wheel on a moving car’. Professor Susskind believes some of the innovation ‘will go spectacularly well; some will no doubt fail’, but ‘[w]e have to learn and improve’.
There was some debate among the witnesses and committee members about the degree of internet access members of the public enjoy. Lisa Wintersteiger, chief executive of internet advice charity Law for Life, said it was misleading to look at access to the internet in isolation: ‘You can watch a YouTube video, but can you use a complex system?’ She agreed with a point made by Penelope Gibbs, director of the campaign group, Transform Justice, that research from the academic, Dr Catrina Denvir, indicated that the ability use a smartphone did not automatically mean that a user was equipped with the necessary literacy and other skills needed to access digital legal services.1Much-quoted research conducted with young people has shown that while they might be able to access information relevant to their legal problem, they may not necessarily be able to act on it: Catrina Denvir, Nigel J Balmer and Pascoe Pleasence, ‘Surfing the web – recreation or resource? Exploring how young people in the UK use the internet as an advice portal for problems with a legal dimension’, Interacting with computers, 23(1), January 2011, pages 96–104.
In the course of the evidence hearing, Professor Susskind on a number of occasions emphasised that there was a need for support services to ensure that who had difficulties accessing digital systems could do so. Andy Slaughter MP (Labour) noted: ‘At the moment, a lot of the existing system has been withdrawn, partly to pay for the new system, and, as a consequence, people fall through the net.’
Gibbs cast doubt on whether the current system of assisted digital was working. She said many people who used pay-as-you-go mobile phones were unlikely to be able to afford to use telephone-based support. She also remarked that, following freedom of information requests submitted by Transform Justice and subsequent figures supplied the former legal aid minister, Lucy Frazer QC MP, ‘I calculate that, for over 100,000 online cases, there have been around 44 person-to-person meetings’ with an adviser from a charity. Gibbs concluded that this ‘seems to indicate to me that the whole system is not facilitating those who might be digitally excluded getting help’.
Replying to the criticisms around the availability of support, Professor Susskind said that in the projects he had looked at around the world, if the systems were designed well, users needed ‘less assistance than the designers had expected’.
‘There have been undoubted benefits from the digitalisation of the courts. The development of online forms for example, has greatly improved the service offered to all court users, but too often digitalisation is presented as a panacea for the problems of our chronically underfunded justice system,’ said LAG interim director, Carol Storer.