In March 2019, JUSTICE submitted evidence to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the access to justice implications of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals (HMCTS) Reform Programme. Our Legal Director, Jodie Blackstock, will be speaking to JUSTICE’s evidence before the Justice Committee on the 25th of June.
HMCTS embarked on a £1bn transformation programme in 2016, aimed at reforming the justice system so that legal disputes are increasingly resolved online. Moves toward digitisation have been coupled with reform of the court and tribunal estate, including through closures of courts and hearing centres.
The aim of the Justice Committee’s 2019 inquiry was to consider the progress made by the reforms so far and the implications of planned changes, particularly in relation to access to justice.
We are of the view that the Reform Programme presents an opportunity to enhance access to justice. However, in our evidence, we drew attention to those areas where proposals and current systems risk a diminution of procedural rights and equal engagement for all users.
In particular, we submitted that:
- the current iteration of Online Money Claims does not feature sufficient “triage” to assist a user, and does not incorporate alternative dispute resolution mechanisms;
- although HMCTS has indicated in principle agreement with all of the recommendations from our report Preventing Digital Exclusion from Online Justice (2018), it is yet to devise particular solutions for the “digitally excluded” cohorts identified in that report;
- the Reform Programme has the potential to create particular difficulties for those in immigration detention or in National Asylum Support Service accommodation;
- current iterations of online justice services provide only basic information and do not signpost users to sources of affordable, discrete or free legal advice that could assist users in understanding what claim to make and how to articulate their claim; and
- although the use of video technology has the potential to considerably enhance participation, very little is known about whether video hearings diminish people’s abilities to engage in the court process. More research is therefore needed on the access to justice implications of video hearings.
Whilst we cannot speak for other groups, we noted that JUSTICE has benefitted from close consultation with HMCTS at all levels and throughout the Reform Programme thus far. However, we advised that the HMCTS structure is difficult to penetrate and it is not always easy to ascertain who is responsible for each element of the programme.