MPs have launched an inquiry into fears that radical plans to resolve court cases online and via remote video hearings are a threat to justice.
The probe, by the Commons Justice Committee, will also examine accompanying proposals to save money by closing more than 6,500 courthouse and backroom jobs by 2022.
The committee will “consider the progress made with the reforms so far and the implications of planned changes, particularly in relation to access to justice”. In particular, it will examine the impact on “those who are digitally excluded or require support to use digital services”.
It will also assess “how far can online processes and video hearings be a sufficient substitute for access to court and tribunal buildings”.
Robert Neill, its Conservative chairman, said: “There is no doubt that the reforms represent a significant change in the delivery of justice across all areas of the system.
“While we welcome the intention of modernising the courts and tribunals, the Public Accounts Committee has already raised concerns about the deliverability of the reforms. We are worried about the access to justice implications and will take this opportunity to put those at the heart of our inquiry.”
The committee has invited written submissions via a portal by 11 March.
A spokesperson for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said last year: “The great strength of the reform programme is that it is led and shaped both by the judiciary and the government.”
The Ministry of Justice has already closed at least 250 courts across England and Wales since 2010, arguing that video links and online justice make many buildings unnecessary. But a report that was not published but widely circulated late last year revealed that a consultation of senior judiciary showed they believed the £1.2 billion modernisation programme would make the courts “unworkable”.
Sir Terence Etherton, master of the rolls, and Lord Justice Coulson, deputy head of civil justice, said most civil judges believed “trials involving oral evidence are not suitable for video hearings”.
Risk to evidence
There was also a risk that, if witnesses were giving evidence remotely via video link, “their evidence might be tampered with or manipulated”.
Sir Brian Leveson, the head of criminal justice said he and other judges believed the process of taking pleas online should not be expanded without changes “to the way that legal aid is provided”.
“Early good quality legal advice is essential and safeguards are imperative,” he wrote. “Many (judges) are concerned that a move to online directions could lead to less engagement.”
Image from iStock, Anthony Baggett