Online courts pilots 'critical' to avoid digital exclusion
â€˜More work required in respect of BME and disabled court users'
The online courts project should be part of a wider access-to-justice programme giving users a choice of options ranging from web chat to face-to-face advice, the courts' advisory body has said, warning than an all-online approach presented a serious risk of increasing digital exclusion.
Only last week, Lord Justice Fulford told Solicitors Journal that the citizens advice bureaux could play a key part as contact points for the digitally excluded. The former International Criminal Court judge said the team leading the project was discussing funding with the government, adding that the judiciary would not be prepared to support a reform programme that would result in reduced access to justice.
Now, responding to the Ministry of Justice's Transforming our Justice System paper, the Civil Justice Council, the advisory body set up within the courts service to coordinate the court modernisation programme, said more accessible online courts 'have the potential to make a significant contribution of our justice system' but that the transformation required a number of areas needed to be addressed.
Examples included increasing public legal education, making sure legal advice remains available, improving publicly funded legal assistance, and addressing the impact of court fees. In addition, the CJC said, the reforms should run a number of pilots, both for online processes and for the assisted digital service developed to support them, a step which it regarded as 'critical.'
The greatest risk however was 'the scale of digital exclusion', according to the CJC, with government figures showing that 18 per cent of the population did not have access to technology or the required skills. While that number was probably an accurate estimate for the population as a whole, the CJC went on, 'the figure rises in terms of court users, as there are disproportionately high number of people on low incomes, the elderly, and people for whom English is not their first language.'
One major issue the CJC highlighted was the consultation's apparent focus on the stages of starting and concluding a legal process, with too little examination of the stages in between. 'It is important to examine every stage of the process, and address stages before the process is initiated,' it commented.
That process, referred to as 'assisted digital' should consider a number of factors, such as users' familiarity with IT, confidence in formal processes, access to family or friends who can help, access to legal advice, and the legal process itself. 'Just as needs as varied, so a range of provision is needed to ensure assistance is provided with access to justice,' it said.
With the government keen on reducing the cost of face-to-face legal advice, the CJC also insisted that some people or groups of people would continue to need this kind of personal advice, such as those lacking in skills or confidence, or those involved in particular types of cases, such as housing repossession claims.
The advisory body pointed to the equalities impact assessment accompanying the government's paper, saying more work was needed in relation to race and disability. In relation to disability in particular, it cited ONS and academic research suggesting that the success rate for disabled court users was higher when there had been oral hearings rather than just paper-based decisions. 'This underlines that for people with disabilities the issues on access to justice are not just about assistance with navigating the systems, but the importance of human interaction.'
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor-in-chief of Solicitors Journal