LCJ: Digital exclusion from online justice “a very small problem”

Burnett: Court estate needs substantial investment

The Lord Chief Justice is optimistic that digital exclusion resulting from the government’s court modernisation programme will be a “very small problem”, he said yesterday.

Lord Burnett told MPs on the justice select committee that in other jurisdictions where court services had been digitalised, digital exclusion had not arisen.

He went on: “The ability to file court documents using your computer at home will improve access to justice and make the lives of those who need to do it much easier.”

Giving evidence on his annual report, published last week, the LCJ said only a “very small percentage” of people would be unable to do this, but they would also find it very difficult to fill in complex forms on paper and send them to the court.

Lord Burnett said England and Wales was “not in the vanguard” of digitalisation, but in other countries that had led the way, such as Canada, digital exclusion “had just not materialised”.

He went on: “I am optimistic that it will be a very small problem, and we can deal with it”.

The LCJ said he was “quite excited” from an access to justice point of view in the benefits modernisation would bring for small businesses.

He said that the take-up by voluntary users of the HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) online money claims service had been “much greater than anyone had imagined”, and the modernisation process would “in general terms” produce “significant” savings.

“If any of us was in dispute over a few hundred pounds or a few thousand pounds, they would think twice about launching proceedings. This will enable us to do it online and in a very efficient way.”

However, Lord Burnett was much less confident that “hundreds of millions” would be found to repair court buildings after a “decade of neglect”.

He said it was “completely unreasonable to expect members of the public to put up with uncomfortable dilapidated buildings which are frankly an embarrassment”.

Lord Burnett said he hoped that in the next spending review, the Treasury would recognise the need for “substantial investment” rather than “sticking plaster”.

However, he could not confirm to committee chair Bob Neill whether an additional £15m promised in the budget for HMCTS was new money.

The Lord Chief Justice said there were three main reasons for the growing backlog of cases in the family courts.

The first was a “very substantial” increase in the volume of public family law cases, which were now running at double the rate of 10 years ago. It was unclear what the reason was for this, as no clear patterns had emerged.

The second was an increase in private family law cases, which had declined after legal aid was removed by LASPO, but were now “right back up”, and the third a lack of judges – a “very worrying” feature.

Meanwhile, in the civil division of the Court of Appeal, the backlog of permissions to appeal had been cut by the use of retired High Court judges.

Lord Burnett said he had been “deeply involved” in the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB) process and discussions with the government on judicial pay.

He said that if the government wanted to improve judicial morale, the first thing it should do is respond positively to the SSRB report, which recommended big pay increases for High Court and Crown Court judges.

He used a question about Brexit to emphasise the need for High Court judges in the commercial courts who “command respect here and around the world” to ensure that London remained the “premier” location for international dispute resolution.

The LCJ added he was aware of the potential difficulties of a “disorderly” departure from the EU, and said the judiciary was “quietly putting ourselves in a place to deal with it.”

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