Digitisation of the court system must not decrease access to justice

Written by Melanie Mylvaganam on 12 July 2016 in Opinion

Faced with the effects of years of austerity and ageing technology, investing in digital will be essential for the justice system - but new technology must work for the people, writes Melanie Mylvaganam, IT policy analyst at the Bar Council. 

Melanie Mylvaganam says that any technological improvements must benefit the pursuit of justice - Photo credit: Bar Council

Unfortunately for those who need to use our courts and justice system, the Ministry of Justice’s budget is not protected from future cuts.

Given the increasingly run-down and antiquated state of many of our courts, and following a series of severe cut-backs to legal aid, investment in technology will be essential to ensuring our system of justice can survive these constrained times.

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In-line with the digital by default agenda, a number of technology-related consultations, programmes and initiatives have recently emerged, their objective being to deliver services that are more responsive, less costly and more cost-effective.

Last year’s spending review earmarked £700 million for investing in IT infrastructure, which will be essential if planned savings and reforms are to be delivered.

Most recently we have seen the installation of Wi-Fi in court rooms, allowing lawyers and judges to share data during a trial, but what do such changes mean for the people using our courts?

A goodbye to lawyers?

The most controversial proposal is that, for some civil court cases, we could do away with court rooms and lawyers altogether.

Plans for this lawyer-less, online court were outlined by Lord Justice Briggs in January this year, and the legal profession waits with bated breath for the follow-up report, which is due this month.

An online court would be a genuine disruption to the status quo. Depending on the complexity of cases, the online court would employ a mix of automation, conciliation, and intervention and adjudication by a judge, where necessary.

This will require a complete upheaval of the rules of court and a break from the traditional adversarial model of litigation.

Although the idea has in some quarters prompted dystopian fears of litigants fending for themselves in an arbitrary world of virtual, telescreen justice, the reality will be more prosaic.

Nevertheless, concerns remain that legal help and advice must still be available where it is required, such as to establish if a client has a case worth pursuing and, if so, to what they may be entitled.

On the criminal side, this year we have seen initiatives such as the Common Platform Programme – which gives barristers access to a secure server through which they can pass confidential documentation – and the Digital Case System, which allows parties to upload information and check the status of their case online.

Despite some teething problems, such as difficulty with logins, accessing documentation during trials and WiFi dropping off, the benefits of digital working seem to be supported by barristers and the judiciary alike.

Courts are looking clunky and outdated

In both criminal and civil cases, video technology is increasingly available in courtrooms around the country.

This allows defendants to “attend” court if they have been remanded in custody, reduces the costs of prisoner transportation (and the inconvenience caused when they arrive in error at the wrong court, or not at all) and has been shown to improve prisoner welfare. Defendants can also attend their first hearing over a video link from the police station without having to be moved.

And witnesses can give their evidence this way, a process that offers myriad advantages – from reduced travel costs to accessibility for disabled witnesses. There have been some issues with implementation owing to lack of knowledge and coordination, and general discomfort with the technology, but the direction of travel is clear.

To many people, courts and their facilities appear to have become clunky and out-dated. In many cases, the buildings themselves are crumbling and creaking at the seams.

Using technology will not fix a leaking roof, but it might mean that for some cases, a building with a roof may not be needed in the first place.

These are, therefore, welcome initiatives, but they will only benefit the justice system and those who use it if they are supported by updated and well-functioning technology.

Implementing a digital by default vision must involve joined-up, strategic and transparent communication between all parties if it is to succeed.

The primary objective of any reforms to our system of justice should be improving access to justice. As great leaps are made in digitising the courts, it is vital that access to these same courts is not placed at risk by initiatives such as the closure of court and tribunal estate, or the continual increases in court fees.

Modernisation must increase, not decrease access to justice.

About the author

Melanie Mylvaganam is IT policy analyst at the Bar Council

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