Court users won’t be forced to use computers

The House of Commons Justice Committee today welcomes Government assurances that vulnerable court users won’t be forced to use digital-only legal systems.

“New digital services are not being created at the expense of those members of the public show need, or want to use paper,” said the Ministry of Justice in its response to a 2019 Justice Committee report on court and tribunal system changes.

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service would “continue to support members of the public who want hard copies of paper forms, or who prefer to use the paper channel rather than online services”.

The Committee had expressed concern that people bringing cases to court would be left without access to key services if they had trouble getting to or using computers.

“The guarantee that paper-based services are still available for those who want them is extremely valuable,” said Sir Bob Neill MP, the Committee’s Chair. “Access to justice must be available to all who are involved in divorce cases or family cases or any other legal process, and we’re glad to see that those whose competence with a computer isn’t great won’t face with the further stress of having to find one and struggle with complicated legal processes and electronic forms.”

HMCTS is managing a multi-million pound programme to modernise legal services, with the shift to online systems, better wifi in courts and video hearings among the plans enabling them to reduce the number of physical court buildings available and reduce staff to make savings.

The programme has come in for criticism from the Justice Committee and the National Audit Office in past reports for being behind schedule, and it has been scaled back against ambitious initial targets announced by the MoJ and senior judges in 2017.

In other responses to Committee recommendations:

  • The government rejected calls for people to be allowed to decline having civil, family and tribunal hearings by video, saying this will be a choice for judges and people involved in the hearings should not have an ‘absolute right’ to choose;
  • Full video hearings won’t be rolled out before pilot programmes have been completed;
  • The Committee’s call for no more court closures until the effect of current closures have been tested was rejected;
  • And the Committee’s attempts to reduce the 12-hour time people are expected to spend travelling to and from and attending daily court hearings were also rejected – “we expect that, for the overwhelming majority of users a reasonable journey would be one that allowed them to leave home no earlier than 7.30am, attend their hearing, and return home by 7.30pm”, said the Government response.

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