A row about digital exclusion has blown up around the Government’s £1 billion programme to modernise courts in England and Wales.
Under the programme, online procedures will replace physical court hearings for most civil money claims, many tribunal cases and even some criminal prosecutions.
Legislation to enable this change, the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill, is now before the House of Commons after being introduced via the Lords.
It could face a stormy passage, especially over access by the digitally excluded. A leading evangelist for online courts, the lord chief justice’s IT adviser, Professor Richard Susskind, argues that going online will open up justice to people who cannot afford to seek redress under today’s “Rolls-Royce” system.
But critics of the reforms in Parliament, the legal profession and civil liberties groups are sceptical. Viewpoints clashed last month at a hearing of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee - with several MPs showing sympathy for the sceptics.
Susskind, speaking on his own behalf, described the programme as the most ambitious of its kind in the world. At present, he said, “we have a system which for most people is way too expensive, takes far too long, to the non-lawyers is unintelligible… courts are very inaccessible and in many respects the way we deliver justice seems out of step with a digital society.”
Several committee members challenged whether going online would improve this. Labour member Bambos Charalambous cited government data suggesting that only 30% of the population are “digital self-servers”.
His colleague David Hanson said a visit the council estates in his North Wales constituency would disprove assertions of widespread access to the internet.
Susskind conceded that there are barriers to inclusion but said the main ones are “not digital literacy but literacy, per se”. A population with current levels of literacy is already excluded from taking part in the judicial system - the challenge is to design the online court so that it is accessible by people with an average reading age of 11.
He vigorously contested assertions by the barrister-MP Andy Slaughter that ordinary people would face the online might of the law alone.
“If I was to say that we're just getting replacing courts with online and leaving parties to their own devices, I'd be sharing your scepticism,” Susskind said, but that was far from the Government’s proposal.
He cited British Columbia’s online civil tribunal as a court designed from the outset to be accessible to ordinary citizens. And, noting the “parlous state” of the justice system at present, Susskind appealed for “a sense of enthusiasm about this”.
This could be a big ask. No date has been set for the second reading of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill, which will give elected members their first opportunities for amendment.
Meanwhile, the lord chancellor and lord chief justice can expect tough questions when they appear before the justice committee this week.
Image from iStock, Anthony Baggett