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Citizens Advice earmarked for key part in digital court scheme

Judiciary wouldn’t support a project reducing access to justice, says senior judge

9 November 2016

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Citizens Advice Bureaux could play a key part in helping fill the digital divide as online justice is gradually being rolled out across the country, according to the senior judge heading the court modernisation programme.

In an enthusiastic talk on the benefits of artificial intelligence for legal processes, Lord Justice Fulford (pictured) described a world where most basic offences and claims could soon be dealt with online without further assistance from human beings.

The senior presiding judge for England and Wales also acknowledged that digitisation brought risks, including that of the exclusion for individuals with no access to technology. ‘I suspect we will probably opt for viewing centres in local authority and court buildings where members of the public can ask to be shown the content of any claim that does not take place in open court but these are early days and we are looking for imaginative solutions.’

One option being considered at present was to use Citizens Advice Bureaux as relay points for members of the public who did not have access to technology or didn’t have the necessary understanding to use the system, the former International Criminal Court judge told Solicitors Journal.

CABs and legal advice centres have been adversely hit by budget cuts and the withdrawal of legal aid, with several of them closing down in the past few years. Lord Justice Fulford said the court modernisation programme team had raised the question of funding with the Ministry of Justice.

Asked whether he was confident that the government would provide the necessary funding, he replied the judiciary would not support reforms that would result in reduced access to justice for members of the public.

Solicitors Journal understands the matter has not yet been raised directly with Citizens Advice but chief executive Gillian Guy said the organisation was open to the suggestion. 'Digitising some court and tribunal services has real potential to make it easier - and in some cases less stressful - for people going through legal processes,' she said.

'The Ministry of Justice is ahead of many other government departments in thinking how people who are less confident with online services can be assisted to use them. We already do a lot of work supporting people to use digital services and would welcome the opportunity to extend this to justice issues.'

Fulford was the presiding judge in the case against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga in the ICC in 2012. The international court, he said, operated as a paperless environment and, while the systems would now be regarded as ‘clunky and antediluvian’, everybody managed.

‘Someone in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo could access the entirety of the documents in the case so long as they had a laptop and an internet connection – the latter, I am willing to accept, was in some parts of Congo, a bit of an ask,’ he commented.

The risk of a technology gap was highlighted last week by access-to-justice campaigner Roger Smith in a paper examining the premise of the Ministry of Justice’s proposals.

Transforming our justice system relies on the government’s 2015 Digital Strategy, which classified the UK’s population into three digital categories. Only 30 per cent of people could be regarded as ‘digital self-servers’ with the skills, access and motivation to use online services on their own. More than half the population (52 per cent) were ‘digital with assistance’, that is, able to engage digitally but requiring assistance. In due course, this category is expected to join the ‘self-servers’.

There remained 18 per cent who were ‘digitally excluded’ – people without the skills or inclination to use online services, or no access to technology. Again, the expectation was that, over time, this group would climb up a category.

Smith also cited earlier research by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee which showed similar findings. ‘The figures also carry the implication that any move to online dispute determination – mandatory use of online procedure – would, at this moment, be premature,’ he said.

On this basis, Smith estimated that ‘13 million adults – disproportionately poor, elderly, female and on low incomes – have insufficient digital skills. Indeed, it looks as if only 57 per cent of those who might formerly have been entitled to legal aid on income grounds have the necessary basic skills to cope with an online small claims court.’

Giving the University of Sussex 2016 Draper lecture, Lord Justice Fulford said the modernisation project would allow the courts system to ‘finally catch up with the world in which we renew our driving licences online, buy microwaves on eBay or novels and music from Amazon and book our holidays online.’

He also confirmed the timescale for the full roll-out of the programme, which will see AI-assisted court processes replace paper-based procedures in the civil and family courts and in tribunals within the next four years.

‘I’m determined that we’ll carry out far more of our work by video link, now the experience of this is much satisfactory than it was a few years ago. The technology is not yet perfect by any means but it is rapidly improving.

‘We’re but a slender moment away when court users will never again have to go to a court house but instead appear from an appropriate location that could even be their home or office depending on the case and the circumstance. They will be able to open their laptop or pick up their smartphone at their kitchen table and communicate with the court via skype or a convenient and effective means available.’

Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief of Solicitors Journal

jean-yves.gilg@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @jeanyvesgilg

Photo credit: University of Sussex. Reproduced by kind permission

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