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MPs warned of court modernisation risks

Courts: closures will add to travel costs

Evidence provided to MPs by those involved in or observing the courts have outlined wide-ranging concerns about the government’s court modernisation programme.

Responding to a call for written evidence – to accompany the oral evidence given at last week’s House of Commons public accounts committee hearings [1] – 10 groups and individuals raised doubts over the scope and consequences of the modernisation programme.

The hearings followed a report by the National Audit Office (NAO), published last month [2], which concluded the reforms had under-delivered against the timetable, risked “unintended consequences”, and had so far failed to carry the support of stakeholders.

Summing up concerns, Professor Roger Smith – whose research focus is on using technology to advance access to justice – said the reforms were “the most ambitious in the world” and noted that the NAO had said their targets were “at best, bracing and, at worst, impossible”.

He continued with a plea to consider the interests of those justice system participants “at the bottom” – the “unrepresented poor defendants and litigants”:

“They do not have the institutional backing that others can call upon. But their interests cannot simply be jettisoned because they are inconvenient.”

Several respondents referred to the implications of the online court for open justice. Journalist and Sheffield University senior lecturer, Mark Hanna, asked how the so-called ‘viewing booth’ system – HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) proposal for allowing interested parties to view online justice – would work in practice.

Mr Hanna concluded: “The planned ‘digital reforms’ could be, in some respects, an opportunity to boost the openness of justice – for example, by giving journalists easy access, when appropriate, to case documents to help them report cases. Nothing has been said… about such possibilities, as far as I am aware.”

The Bar Council asked about how open justice would work when all parties participated remotely, particularly in “high-profile trials attracting large audiences in multiple different court centres”.

The Magistrates Association predicted that HMCTS was being “far too optimistic” in its estimates of the number of court users “who can or will engage digitally”.

However, it welcomed “the opportunity that digitisation of case files will bring to increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of court processes”.

Several respondents objected to the court closure programme, which through the sale of court buildings would help fund the online court.

Justice charity Transform Justice said that, in the meantime, “for those who do still have to attend court, travel costs and travel time will increase. These costs do not appear to have been calculated and will have a negative effect on workers across the public sector, and on vulnerable court users”.

In its submission, the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents court staff at many different levels, said it was concerned that the court reforms were aimed at cash savings to justify cuts to the Ministry of Justice’s budget, which it said were “overwhelmingly burdensome” and “exceed any other government department”.

The union blamed digitalisation for exacerbating “poor morale, change-fatigue and de-skilling” among court staff, adding: “It is not without irony that HMCTS laud digital services as means of preventing unnecessary delay when products being developed are causing and increasing it.”

One Cambridge magistrate and former criminal defence lawyer, Melanie Benn, wrote to say that she was “angry and demoralised by the current state of the court system”, that the criminal justice system was “on its knees; there are not enough staff to run courts properly”, and that “digitalisation is a nightmare”.

She concluded that she would be leaving the magistracy within two years: “Everyone is so demoralised. All the suggested changes will, in my professional opinion, destroy the system that I have tried to uphold for so long. I cannot participate in that.”

Just one submission could be described as positive. Professor Liz Trinder of the University of Exeter’s law school observed that the online divorce service [3] pointed up a significant success.

The service underlined “that it is vital that the focus on identifying problems does not overlook, or undermine, the successes that have already been achieved in the programme, including in family justice”.

It was important not to forget the potential gains of modernisation or how bad the system was before, she said: “It would be easy to lose sight of the very real problems with the pre-reform justice system, as evident in the experience of (mostly unrepresented) people applying for a divorce pre-May 2018”.