MPs have expressed concern about the government’s “evident preference” for virtual and online justice over traditional, court-based models without the evidence base to justify it.
They also said HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has not done enough work on how those unable to use online tools will be supported.
Bob Neill MP, chairman of the justice select committee, outlined his committee’s concerns about aspects of the consultation paper on modernising the court estate, issued jointly by the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS in January.
“The estate reform programme is predicated on an assumption that increasing use will be made of modern technology in the administration and delivery of justice, leading to a reduced need for physical buildings… however, the consultation does not seek views on this aspect of the reform strategy.
“We do not doubt that further modernisation is needed, and we welcome proposals such as the centralisation of HMCTS administrative functions.
“However, we are concerned about the MoJ/HMTCS’s evident preference for virtual and online justice over traditional, court-based models in the absence of recent research, or evaluation of pilot projects.”
While accepting that video hearings may suit some court users, “we consider it likely that virtual courts will disadvantage some individuals”, such as unrepresented defendants, defendants who do not speak English well, and older and younger court users.
“The MoJ appears to have undertaken no evaluation of virtual hearings since its pilot programme in Kent and London, which was evaluated in a report published in 2010.
“This found that virtual courts were expensive to set up and to run, that defendants appeared less engaged in the process and that the rate of guilty pleas and custodial sentences was higher than in traditional courts for reasons that were unclear.
“This discrepancy indicates that further evaluation is needed before moving towards routine use of virtual hearings.”
Equally, Mr Neill said, while some types of case leant themselves to online processes – such as the online service for straightforward divorce – “were digital justice to become the norm, we believe that substantial barriers would be faced by non-users of the internet…
“We do not consider that the MoJ/HMCTS proposals for providing face-to-face assisted digital support have been adequately developed, evaluated or costed.”
Without help for those without access to, or familiarity with, the internet, “this would raise a serious issue of discrimination and fairness – particularly for those in older age groups and those who are less well off.
“The adverse impact may be greater because of the widespread cuts to local libraries which have previously facilitated internet access for these groups.”
Mr Neill also complained that there was no consultation or piloting of the proposals to introduce online pleas, or the proposals designed to allow defendants charged with certain minor offences to plead guilty using an entirely automated system that would issue an online conviction and penalty.
“We believe there are particular fears about the implications of departing from the long-established principle of open justice… In addition, there may be concerns about the fairness of defendants making decisions about plea without the benefit of legal advice.”