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MPs sound access to justice alarm over court reform

Neill: The ministry must halt planned deep staff cuts

Enhancing access to justice appears to be ancillary to the court modernisation programme rather than its central goal, MPs warned yesterday.

The cross-party justice select committee said the £1bn programme being run by HM Courts and Tribunals Services (HMCTS) and the senior judiciary “risks excluding the most vulnerable in our society from access to justice”.

It was proceeding on the “mistaken assumption” that people with limited legal capability would be able to navigate their way through conventional and digital court processes without the benefit of legal advice.

In a report [1] following its latest inquiry into the reforms, the committee recognised that modernisation was “long overdue” but said that, had access to justice been their primary focus, “we do not think we would have received such a volume of evidence criticising the approach of the HMCTS”.

The evidence highlighted the experiences of those who lacked digital or legal capability or were too poor to afford access to the internet, and the needs of those who were disabled, elderly or caring for young children, making it hard to manage a multiple-bus journey to a courtroom over two hours away.

“HMCTS’s enthusiasm for video links and video hearings is in sharp contrast to the views of people with first-hand experience of using this barely researched technology, who pointed to the communication barriers that it can create.

“A shortage of front-line staff in many courts has sometimes compromised access to justice.”

The committee made 28 recommendations, including that HMCTS confirm that cost savings and efficiencies take second place to access to justice in the vision that underpins the reform programme.

The MPs said they could not “ignore the government’s failure to provide enough publicly funded legal advice and representation to support court users who, for whatever reason, struggle to navigate the justice system without support”.

They continued: “The success of many aspects of the reform programme depends on this being addressed as soon as possible. We urge the Ministry of Justice to ensure comprehensive delivery of its legal support action plan within the time frames stated in the action plan document.”

The plan was promised in February [2] following the ministry’s post-LASPO review, but the committee found that “progress in implementing that plan appears to have been very slow”.

Among the other recommendations were:

Committee chair and Conservative MP Bob Neill said: “We understand that courts and tribunals are strained to breaking, with systems that ever more people are having to try to navigate for themselves. Court staff and the judiciary are trying hard to improve services in the face of underfunding and cuts.

“But we are concerned that a vulnerable person… could be left trying to negotiate enough time at a library to file papers or tune in to an evidence hearing where they are trying to get justice.

“In the kinds of cases heard in many courts, both victim and perpetrator may have recognised vulnerabilities and find it difficult to understand or participate in the process or exercise their right to be heard.

“The ministry must halt planned deep staff cuts in court buildings until it is confident it can provide a proper alternative service, and end further court closures until the past effect of closing courts on the people who use them has been properly assessed.”

Mr Neill urged the government to “pause for breath” to make sure that everyone who needed the court system could get to court and access justice “where and when they need to”.