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  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  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:
- Defendants should only be able to enter pleas online in criminal cases where they have obtained legal advice and that the legal aid rules be changed to allow access to advice in all such cases;
- There should be a Freephone service for members of the public to contact HMCTS;
- By April 2021, the network of assisted digital online centres be extended to deliver comprehensive national coverage, providing walk-in access, and where possible be co-located with advice agencies to facilitate referral for legal advice and support;
- The government should commit to piloting public legal education within its action plan for legal support, with a view to rolling out a national programme by 2022;
- HMCTS should not introduce fully video remand hearings before robust piloting and evaluation, alongside sufficient investment in video equipment and reliable WiFi;
- While video links and fully video hearings have value for administrative hearings in civil, family and tribunal cases involving legal professionals, all litigants in such cases have the right to decline to give evidence by video;
- There should be an immediate moratorium on further court closures pending robust independent analysis of the effect of closures already implemented;
- HMCTS should accelerate its programme of building repairs;
- HMCTS should adopt a revised travel benchmark so that the overwhelming majority of users should be able to reach their nearest court or tribunal hearing centre within 1.5 hours by public transport. No user should be expected to leave home earlier than 8am or return home later than 6pm and, where necessary, courts and tribunals should be willing to adapt their sitting times to accommodate this;
- HMCTS should not proceed with planned and much deeper staffing cuts unless it is confident of being able to provide an acceptable level of service to court users;
- The senior judiciary should convene a working group to consider how to protect and enhance media access to proceedings; and
- The Lord Chancellor should take clearer ownership of the programme and assumes the lead in communicating its vision.
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”.