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Lawyers pour cold water on online tribunal plans



Association says system will disadvantage unemployed people fighting cases without legal help

Online employment tribunals as envisaged by the Government's plans for transformed justice would exclude many claimants and be unsuitable for complex cases, specialist lawyers have warned.

In a response to the Government's consultation on reforming the employment tribunal system, the Employment Lawyers Association argues strongly that online hearings should not be mandatory.

Noting that people who bring cases to the tribunal are frequently in desperate circumstances and without a lawyer, the association says: “More often than not in employment cases, litigants in person out of necessity need the assistance from the tribunal to pursue their case effectively. An online system would remove that all important leveller of the playing field and, in so doing, may compromise the fairness of an online system.”

The association says it strongly believes that an online system must not be compulsory, and that some cases, such as those involving allegations of discrimination, should be based on live evidence.

Web access issue

Meanwhile, victims of discrimination are more likely to be among the 5% of the adult population with neither access to the web nor someone who can help them. Poorer people with access to the internet tend to rely on smartphones and tablets, the response says, arguing that any online tribunal system must be designed with this in mind. 

“Making an online system available but not compulsory, can still achieve savings without excluding potential users,” the response concludes. 

In another critical response, the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said the Government should learn lessons from failed courtroom IT projects. It noted that the CaseFlow electronic case management system for employment tribunals was scrapped “due to spiralling costs of development and an absence of evidence that it would be able to deliver the efficiencies that it promised it would”.

The need for updates in technology has been highlighted by the head of another branch of the courts system. Sir James Munby, head of the family division, berated the state of equipment in his own court in London's Royal Courts of Justice.

Failing links

Video links enabling vulnerable people to give evidence without the trauma of standing up in court, are “prone to the link failing and with desperately poor sound and picture quality”.

That is, if the equipment is there at all. Munby wrote on his blog: “When, recently, I needed a screen in my court, the only workable solution was found to be the careful placing in the jury box - relic of the days when divorce suits were tried before juries - of a vast and very heavy wooden screen which required a number of porters to install it.

“On one recent occasion when, having moved to another court… I used a video link, everyone and everything appeared on screen in such a bright blue shade as to remind me of Avatar. On another recent occasion everything on screen appeared bathed in that green translucent glow one associates with underwater photography.”

Image from iStock






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