Criminal and civil lawyers have spelt out to MPs on the justice select committee a catalogue of ways in which court modernisation is undermining access to justice.
Among them were a lack of judges and court staff, faulty technology, inappropriate use of video links, and an ‘assisted digital service’ provided by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) which had “not been a help at all”.
The committee held evidence sessions yesterday as part of its inquiry into the impact on access to justice of the modernisation programme.
In the criminal law session, Gerwyn Wise, assistant secretary of the Criminal Bar Association, said the focus of the reforms was “efficiency and cost savings at the expense of access to justice”.
Mr Wise said lack of court staff meant judges were often “the only person in the room” in the Crown Courts where he worked, meaning that there was nobody to fix problems with CCTV or other digital evidence and half a day could be lost in delays.
Mr Wise said there was “barely a day” when the wifi did not go down or the system fail to work.
He said video links were being used not only for straightforward procedural hearings, but for those involving plea and trial preparation, which was “much more difficult” and left him with only 15 minutes to explain to his clients everything they needed to understand.
Matt O’Brien, chair of Birmingham Law Society’s criminal law committee, said research suggested that defendants “disengage” when using a video link, and custodial sentences were more likely when there was remoteness from the judge.
Detective Chief Inspector Craig Kirby from Thames Valley Police said a pilot in Newbury of video links in high-risk domestic violence hearings found that some victims wanted to give evidence in the presence of defendants.
“We thought they were better served by using it, but we were wrong.”
John Bache, chair of the Magistrates Association, said court closures should be halted until more was known about the impact.
He said the “very people” who were most affected by court closures were unable to cope with a digital service.
All four men agreed that that there had been no evaluation yet of the impact of court modernisation on access to justice.
Tessa Buchanan, barrister and vice-chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, told MPs in the civil law session which followed that she was “very troubled” by the failure of the Ministry of Justice to study the impact of its modernisation programme, even when the consequences were “very severe”.
She said that along with “numerous examples” of the courts failing to respond to telephone calls and emails, one court had failed to impose a charging order in a human trafficking case in time to stop the perpetrator selling the property involved, meaning that instead of £250,000 compensation the victim “ended up with nothing”.
Ms Buchanan said lack of court staff was also making it very difficult for tenants to make applications to the court to suspend evictions.
She described the review and consultation process on the changes as “lip service” and said that “despite our concerns, the juggernaut continues”.
Harriet Bosnyak, a solicitor at Shelter, said the closure of Morpeth County Court had left people with housing problems in Northumberland facing a 15-20 mile journey to Newcastle, “a city they don’t know”, making an “incredibly stressful situation even harder”.
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, said that while the digitisation of existing court processes could be very successful, making it easier for litigants in person to make “ill-advised” money claims online could put their life savings or home at risk of they were liable for the other side’s costs.
Mr Miller said feedback from solicitors on the HMCTS assisted digital service indicated that very few people were using it, partly because they often needed legal advice and because staff at their local court “knew nothing about it”.
He added: “Overall we would say it has not been a help at all.”