Serious concerns exist about the effect on access to justice and its efficient despatch of the current court and tribunal modernisation programme, led by the Ministry of Justice and the senior judiciary of England and Wales.
Courts service modernisation, including use of better IT to be more efficient, is long- overdue. But we have found that poor digital skills, limited access to technology and low levels of literacy and legal knowledge raise barriers against access to new services provided by digital means. The HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has not taken sufficient steps to address the needs of vulnerable users, who lack adequate legal advice and support. Face-to-face support is essential. We recommend that by April 2021 the network of assisted digital Online Centres be extended to deliver comprehensive national coverage with walk-in access.
We received powerful evidence of a court system in administrative chaos, with serious staff shortages threatening to compromise the fairness of proceedings. HMCTS must not proceed with planned much deeper staffing cuts unless it is confident of being able to provide acceptable service. We are concerned about delays, for example in processing divorce petitions, and we call on HMCTS to publish ambitious targets for divorce completion times.
Between 2010 and 2018, half of magistrates’ courts closed, along with more than one third of county courts. These closures have created alarming difficulties for many court users, who are now expected to travel too far to attend court and to spend too many hours of their days or weeks in doing so. There should be no further court closures without robust independent analysis of the effects of closures already implemented. We recommended earlier this year that HMCTS urgently establish more supplementary venues (such as pop-up courts in non-traditional courts buildings), and these should be established in every area where there has been a court closure in the past 10 years.
Existing court buildings are dilapidated and sometimes lack the basics, such as facilities for disabled users. This is unacceptable and must be addressed.
The interests of justice are not served by unreliable video equipment and WiFi facilities throughout the criminal courts estate; HMCTS must expedite planned investment upgrading these. There is not enough research on the impact on justice outcomes of video hearings and video links in the UK; the MoJ should commission this. Existing access to online justice processes only via the gov.uk website should be discontinued and replaced without delay.
Open justice—that is, the public resolution of criminal and civil disputes—must not fall by the wayside. HMCTS should, in consultation with the senior judiciary, develop technological solutions to support open justice. We recommend that the senior judiciary convene a working group to consider how to protect and enhance media access to proceedings. 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 has struggled to explain its vision for the reform programme, and needs to be more rigorous in engaging with and responding to stakeholders. The MoJ should also do more to evaluate the reforms, especially their impact on vulnerable and excluded groups.
Published: 31 October 2019