MPs are to probe the access to justice implications of the £1bn court modernisation programme, it was announced today.
The justice select committee will consider issues such as the increasing use of digital and video technology, and the closures of courts and tribunal hearing centres.
The inquiry follows on from the July 2018 report of the public accounts committee (PAC), in which MPs said they have “little confidence” that the Transforming Courts and Tribunals programme could be delivered.
They expressed concern that HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has not adequately considered impact on access to, and fairness of, the justice system with its plans.
The report followed a critical report in May by the National Audit Office.
The justice committee’s inquiry will consider the progress made with the reforms so far and the implications of planned changes, particularly in relation to access to justice.
Conservative MP Bob Neill, who chairs the committee, said: “There is no doubt that the HMCTS reforms represent a significant change in the delivery of justice across all areas of the system.
“While we welcome the intention of modernising the courts and tribunals, the public accounts committee has already raised concerns about the deliverability of the reforms. We are worried about the access to justice implications and will take this opportunity to put those at the heart of our inquiry.”
In its response to the PAC report, HMCTS agreed to provide a series of updates by the end of this month. These include “a clear and detailed articulation of what the changes will mean in practice” for all users of the justice system, and when the changes were expected to be in place.
Further, it will identify and evaluate the impact of changes on people’s access to, and the fairness of, the justice system.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Justice said that more than 150,000 had benefited from online justice last year, more than half of which (81,000) involved online pleas for low-level motoring offences.
Of the systems that launched at various points throughout 2018, there were 23,000 online divorce applications, 39,000 money claims 7,500 probate applications, 3,300 personal independent payment appeals, and 1,400 online pleas for Transport for London fare evasion cases.
The Ministry of Justice said that, by 2020, around 100 services will be available digitally.
The justice committee has invited written submissions about the effects and potential effects of the reform programme on access to justice, as well as the management of the reform process.
One of the terms of reference is to consider how far online processes and video hearings can be a sufficient substitute for access to court and tribunal buildings.
The committee will also consider whether the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS have consulted effectively on the reforms, and maintained sufficient communication, with judges, lawyers and the advice sector.