Professor Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice, clashed with MPs on the justice committee yesterday over whether the government’s court modernisation programme is doing enough to combat digital exclusion.
In an apparent concession, Professor Susskind said there needed to be “more thinking” about which civil cases involving sums of less than £10,000 should be handled online and which should be dealt with in the traditional way.
The committee is holding an inquiry into the impact on access to justice of the court modernisation programme, and Labour MP David Hanson took issue with the academic’s claim that there was “widespread access to the internet”.
Professor Susskind responded by saying that 90% of adults in the UK last year had recently used the internet and a further 5% were ‘proxy users’, helped by children or grandchildren, meaning that only 5% were digitally excluded.
Mr Hanson told him: “I think you should come to some of the council estates in my constituency, where there’s lack of access and people haven’t got computers.”
Professor Susskind was also challenged by another witness, Lisa Wintersteiger, chief executive of Law for Life, who told him that there were still around 10m people who could not access the internet, and there needed to be “more understanding before we race ahead” with online courts.
He described the court reforms as “the world’s most ambitious”, and the philosophy behind them as “sound”.
However, he questioned whether, when deciding which civil cases were suitable for online justice, it was right to apply a blanket £10,000 limit, saying some cases worth less than £10,000 may need to be excluded.
“It may be because of the nature of the person that needs particular help, it might be because the case raises important social issues, it may be because it raises difficult legal issues.
“More thinking needs to be done on what renders a case suitable for online disposal.”
Professor Susskind said at one point that he wanted to “inject some enthusiasm into the room”, given the “negativity” of those giving evidence alongside him.
Penelope Gibbs, director of charity Transform Justice, described the court modernisation project as “undemocratic and anti-democratic”, complaining that it “started in a deal behind closed doors” and had not been sufficiently open to scrutiny by the public and Parliament.
She said that out of 100,000 cases handled online, the Ministry of Justice had said that only 44 involved face-to-face meetings with people who were digitally excluded.
Jodie Blackstock, legal director of JUSTICE, said that just because someone could open a web page did not mean they were able to fill in a legal form on their own.
She said there were many ways that technology could make the process easier – using videos to explain things and dictionary pop-ups.
“We should do far more work on this, bearing in mind the baseline of a lack of understanding.”
Ms Wintersteiger called for a “genuinely user-centred design” for online justice, and said the current system looked as if it had been designed for “a transaction from the commercial sphere”.
She added that, despite their apparent technological ability, young people often had less skills than older people in the population, lacking basic numeracy and literacy.