In October 2019, the House of Commons Justice committee expressed “serious concerns” about the effect of the modernisation process on access to justice.1
“Courts service modernisation, including use of better IT to be more efficient, is long overdue,” the MPs reported. “But we have found that poor digital skills, limited access to technology and low levels of literacy and legal knowledge raise barriers against access to new services provided by digital means. HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has not taken sufficient steps to address the needs of vulnerable users, who lack adequate legal advice and support. Face-to-face support is essential. We recommend that by April 2021 the network of assisted digital online centres be extended to deliver comprehensive national coverage with walk-in access.”
We received powerful evidence of a court system in administrative chaos, with serious staff shortages threatening to compromise the fairness of proceedings. HMCTS must not proceed with planned much deeper staffing cuts unless it is confident of being able to provide acceptable service. We are concerned about delays, for example in processing divorce petitions, and we call on HMCTS to publish ambitious targets for divorce completion times.
Between 2010 and 2018, half of magistrates’ courts closed, along with more than one third of county courts. These closures have created alarming difficulties for many court users, who are now expected to travel too far to attend court and to spend too many hours of their days or weeks in doing so. There should be no further court closures without robust independent analysis of the effects of closures already implemented. We recommended earlier this year that HMCTS urgently establish more supplementary venues (such as pop-up courts in non-traditional courts buildings), and these should be established in every area where there has been a court closure in the past 10 years.
Existing court buildings are dilapidated and sometimes lack the basics, such as facilities for disabled users. This is unacceptable and must be addressed.
The interests of justice are not served by unreliable video equipment and WiFi facilities throughout the criminal courts estate; HMCTS must expedite planned investment upgrading these. There is not enough research on the impact on justice outcomes of video hearings and video links in the UK; the MoJ should commission this. Existing access to online justice processes only via the gov.uk website should be discontinued and replaced without delay.
Open justice — that is, the public resolution of criminal and civil disputes — must not fall by the wayside. HMCTS should, in consultation with the senior judiciary, develop technological solutions to support open justice. We recommend that the senior judiciary convene a working group to consider how to protect and enhance media access to proceedings. The Government should commit to piloting public legal education within its action plan for legal support, with a view to rolling out a national programme by 2022.
That report was followed less than a week later by one from the Public Accounts Committee.2 The MPs on this committee said:
HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has again fallen behind on critical reforms. HMCTS is now three years into its ambitious £1.2 billion programme to modernise the courts, which plan to change the way people access justice by digitising paper‐based services, moving some types of cases online, introducing virtual hearings, closing courts and centralising customer services. We last looked at the programme in mid‐2018 and reported that we had little confidence that HMCTS could deliver its ambitious plans within its timetable. Although HMCTS responded to these concerns and extended its timeline to seven years, it is still struggling to deliver all it promised. Recent moves to increase police numbers and, therefore, the likely rise in demand, will only make the challenge even greater and place courts and the wider justice system under even more pressure.
Disappointingly, many of the concerns we raised in our last report on the reform programme have not been addressed. It remains unclear how the reforms are affecting access to justice, especially for vulnerable people. HMCTS has not shown it is doing enough to understand the impact on court and tribunal users before pressing ahead with reforms, increasing the risk that justice outcomes might be affected, particularly with the court closure programme. HMCTS has closed 127 courts since 2015 yet has produced no formal evaluation of the impact. But closures have made it more difficult for people to access justice. Particular groups, such as those with disabilities, on low income, or living in rural areas, are especially disadvantaged. Another enduring concern is the quality of stakeholder engagement. We previously pointed out the importance of winning the hearts and minds of users, but although stakeholders report improvements in engagement, they feel HMCTS focuses on informing rather than listening and learning. As a result, HMCTS risks undermining trust in the reforms and, ultimately, in the fairness of the justice system.
In response to the Public Accounts Committee, Susan Acland-Hood, CEO of HMCTS, said:3
We welcome today’s report. It reflects the ambitious and challenging nature of the programme to modernise our courts and tribunals but recognises the progress being made.
We also recognise the need to redouble our efforts to listen to and engage with all those who work within the justice system. The committee acknowledges improvements in this area but rightly says there is more to do to win hearts and minds.
By re-designing the justice system around those who use it we are making it more accessible to all. More than 250,000 members of the public have used our new online services since last year with over 80% satisfied.
Many of those users have told us that such services – like the new online Civil Money Claims service that has now received more than 100,000 claims – have given them access to justice not previously available.
Improving access to justice is at the heart of our programme and we will continue to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable as it progresses. Together with the Ministry of Justice and the senior judiciary, we will respond in detail to the committee’s recommendations in due course.
The next day, a report from the Administrative Justice Council4 expressed concerns about the potential impact of digitisation on access to justice for the digitally excluded and for those most vulnerable in our society.
Early findings of a survey it had commissioned suggested that “front-line services are already at capacity and are struggling to provide an appropriate level of service either digitally or otherwise. Shortage of staff, lack of facilities and skills are cited as the main reasons.”