Balancing the benefits of digital justice with the risks of reducing access for the digitally excluded is a significant challenge. In the context of the ongoing HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) ‘digital by default’ reformed services, this challenge is being addressed through a service called Digital Support, which has been in pilot phase since 2017. This pilot will shortly come to an end, but what do we know about its impact and what comes next?
In the face of concerns about barriers to accessing digital services,1Court and tribunal reforms. Second report of session 2019, HC 190, House of Commons Justice Committee, 31 October 2019.
Digital Support has provided a justification for the continued development of HMCTS reforms. But if the reforms are truly to maintain or improve access to justice,2The modernisation of tribunals 2018: a report by the senior president of tribunals, Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, December 2018, page 9.
then Digital Support must fulfil its role, not simply as a safety net for the 16 per cent of the UK population who are unable to ‘participate in a digital society’,3Lloyds Bank UK consumer digital index 2020, page 38.
but as a vital backbone to the whole reform agenda. With the four-year pilot coming to an end in September 2021 and a procurement process for the national service well underway, now is a good moment to reflect on Digital Support’s implementation so far.
Impact of Digital Support
Digital Support is the assisted digital service set up to help digitally excluded individuals navigate reformed services in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The programme has been in a ‘test and learn’ pilot since September 2017.
Its most recent Delivery guide
defines Digital Support as, ‘help for people who need to use online services but don't have the skills, ability or access to do so on their own’ (page 5). The face-to-face Digital Support is being delivered in partnership with the Good Things Foundation, a digital exclusion charity. Participating centres across England and Wales – primarily public libraries, Citizens Advice offices, community centres and Law Centres – then deliver the service. Sites can offer support for the following specific reformed services: civil money claims, divorce, probate, social security and child support, single justice system (eg, TfL fines), and help with fees.
Take-up was initially low but increased in later pilot phases. According to the Good Things Foundation’s implementation review,4HMCTS Digital Support service: implementation review September 2020, Good Things Foundation/HMCTS.
the first two phases of the pilot ran from September 2017 to June 2019 and saw only 82 appointments delivered across this 21-month period. However, in phase three, take-up increased significantly with a total of 700 appointments between July 2019 and August 2020.
The service has been adapted as lessons are learnt. Key developments have included allowing participating centres to generate their own referrals (only four per cent of appointments were as a result of an HMCTS referral), deliver advice including legal advice in the same appointment as Digital Support, and offer to type for Digital Support users.
However, issues remain around the way participating centres are paid. Centres are not separately funded to advertise the service to generate referrals, making it difficult for them to provide Digital Support to anyone other than their current client base. Additionally, despite many online processes requiring multiple engagements over time, centres cannot be paid for any additional support unless it is a new service. This in turn raises concerns around how centres can provide support beyond initial online form completion.
Similarly, concerns regarding boundaries between legal and digital advice were raised by Public Law Project (PLP) to the House of Commons Justice Committee in January 20195PLP submission to the Justice Committee inquiry on the access to justice impacts of court and tribunal reforms, published 14 March 2019.
and were echoed in the Good Things Foundation’s implementation review, which found that emotional, procedural, and sometimes legal support were ‘often crucial to the success of a face-to-face [Digital Support] appointment, and in some instances not having this support would be a barrier to accessing HMCTS services online'.
An addendum to the initial implementation review is also due in August 2021. This will evaluate the final phase of the pilot, phase four, which runs until September 2021. Crucially, it will also evaluate the remote delivery aspects of this latest phase.
Looking beyond the pilot, a national service will be rolled out later this year. A key concern to date has been the longevity of the pilot and its capacity, as a pilot project, to provide the primary safety net against digital exclusion for fully operational HMCTS reformed services. We therefore welcome this national service roll-out and future evaluations of how it is meeting the challenges that the Good Things Foundation and others have highlighted with the pilot.