Justice Committee report critical of digital reforms
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Louise Heath
A report from the House of Commons Justice Committee published last week (31 October 2019) is highly critical of the government’s reform programme for the courts and tribunals system.1Court and tribunal reforms. Second report of session 2019. It calls on HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to confirm that access to justice takes priority over saving cash and is damning of the government’s failure to provide advice and representation to those who need it (paras 217 and 218).
In September 2016, the government launched its ambitious plans to remodel the system based largely on the development of digital services. The timetable for the developments has slipped twice. It was extended from four to six years soon after it launched and in March this year it slipped again by a further 12 months. The reforms, which include new online services, extending the availability of wi-fi and the controversial closure of many court buildings, are now due to be completed by 2023.
A budget of £1.2bn has been allocated for the programme and the report notes that, according to the National Audit Office, the sale of court buildings has contributed more than 22 per cent of this figure (para 89). The report observes that most of the evidence it received had ‘argued that closures had had an adverse effect’ (para 92). The committee believes that those closures have led to ‘serious difficulties for many court users’ and recommends an immediate halt to further closures 'pending robust independent analysis’ of the impact, especially on access to justice (para 108).
The poor condition of court and tribunal buildings was reflected in the evidence to the committee. Young Legal Aid Lawyers told it that, last winter, the heating controls in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber hearing centres in Manchester and Bradford were so bad that ‘users had to wear coats and use space heaters’ (para 111).
LAG author and high-profile housing solicitor, Diane Astin, told the committee that the closure of court counters made it very difficult for people wanting to make emergency applications to prevent evictions. She argued that ‘present levels of service are so poor that the courts are simply not accessible to unrepresented litigants’ (para 140).
The report states that staff and users should not have to ‘put up with dilapidated and uncomfortable court buildings’ and the committee is ‘alarmed by evidence’ that disabled facilities in the buildings ‘are not reliably available’ (para 114). The committee’s chair, the Conservative MP Bob Neill, said that while it ‘understand[s] and support[s] the principle that modernisation is overdue’, it believes the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ‘must halt planned deep staff cuts in court buildings’ and ‘further court closures’ (‘Modernisation programme risks excluding the most vulnerable from justice’, 31 October 2019).
Neill believes that ‘an essential and fundamental principle of our entire justice system’ is that it is open to all. The report highlights poor literacy and digital skills, among other factors, as being significant barriers to accessing digital services and argues that HMCTS ‘clearly has some way to go in reassuring stakeholders’ that these concerns are being addressed (para 26).
Lisa Wintersteiger, CEO of the public legal education charity, Law for Life, told the committee that she was concerned ‘about the idea that technology will move things along and everybody will be fine’ as young people are better able to use digital services. She warned that there are ‘9 million adults who lack very basic numeracy and literacy skills’ and many of these are young people (para 30).
JUSTICE identified homeless people as an excluded group with poor access to technology who needed a ‘specialised approach’ to be able to access the courts and tribunal system (para 31). In its evidence to the committee, Shelter argued that if someone had stopped paying their rent, they were unlikely to be able to afford to pay a broadband bill (para 32). The report confirms that HMCTS ‘has not taken sufficient steps to address the needs of vulnerable users, particularly as regards an absence of adequate legal advice and support’ (para 38).
Many witnesses to the inquiry discussed the issue of a lack of legal capability among the public. According to the report, research conducted by the academic Catrina Denvir showed that while users could conduct ‘a range of activities online’, this did not necessarily mean ‘they have the capability to undertake legal processes online’ (para 51). The report concludes that the government needs to appreciate the importance 'of public legal education in building legal capability’ (para 61).
Interim LAG director, Carol Storer, said: ‘This report highlights the need for the government to invest in advice, representation and other support services, as without these, no matter how innovative the technology is, whole swathes of the population, including the most vulnerable, will be denied access to justice.’
In a press release issued in response to the report, the CEO of HMCTS, Susan Acland-Hood, said that it did not ‘believe the report presents a balanced assessment of reform’ but it would, together with the MoJ and the senior judiciary, ‘take the time to carefully address the committee’s findings and respond fully in due course’.2‘HMCTS response to Justice Select Committee report on court and tribunal reforms’, 31 October 2019.
 
1     Court and tribunal reforms. Second report of session 2019»
2     ‘HMCTS response to Justice Select Committee report on court and tribunal reforms’, 31 October 2019. »

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Description: Steve Hynes
Steve Hynes is a freelance consultant and writer. He was previously director of LAG. He is a well-known commentator in the written and broadcast media...