Fair for all

Jeremy Beecham on the need to ensure the digitally excluded continue to have proper access to our justice system

As many at Westminster continue to be distracted by the Conservative Party’s ongoing internal strife, what passes for a government is ploughing on with a £1bn courts reform programme that will fundamentally change how justice is delivered. With no real piloting and little public scrutiny, it is still unclear what ministers are trying to achieve. 

The latest stage of the process is the House of Lords Report stage of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill have its Lords. The Bill creates a committee to design online rules for civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions. Starting with money claims, different cases will be moved online with disputes resolved without the advice of a lawyer.

The use of technology in our court service can be beneficial where it enhances justice, timely dispute resolution and efficient administration. But online processes will not necessarily speed up cases, and innovations should not come at the expense of access to justice and legal aid.

Despite the government’s introduction of online divorce, delays at the largest regional Divorce Centre in Bury St Edmunds reached unprecedented levels in 2018. Couples must now wait over a year for their divorce to be finalised, and the eight day wait for issuing a petition has more than doubled. 

Technology cannot make up for the 295 courts closed since 2019, nor the loss of a third of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. Moreover, it can also lead to exclusion and exacerbate risks.

Last year, the Office for National Statistics found that 10% of the UK’s adult population could be characterised as “internet non-users” – 5.3 million people. 22% of disabled people have never used the internet, and the charity Mind believes those with a disability or mental health problems are disproportionately likely to be digitally excluded. It also points to Universal Credit and how one in four of those with long term health conditions could not make a claim online. 

The Lords Constitution Committee has criticised the legislation as “unsatisfactory” for failing to acknowledge the right to a fair hearing, as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. People must have the right to choose between traditional procedures or the new online system, and physical courts must remain an integral part of how people access justice. 

All of this underpins why we are seeking to amend the Bill to ensure the proposed new committee includes a champion for the digitally excluded. Whenever new procedures are designed, we want to ensure the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard, whether online or offline.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham

Published 24th June 2019


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