A damning report by Parliament’s Justice Select Committee has demanded a halt to court closures and further staff cuts until the effects of closing courts has been properly assessed. Between 2010 and 2018 half of the UK’s Magistrates Courts and one third of County Courts were closed.
The cuts are part of a £1 billion programme by HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) which aims to modernise the court service to make it swifter, simpler and easier to access. HMCTS wants to introduce more IT and video hearings whilst closing existing magistrate courts and other court buildings.
The Justice Select Committee’s report raised serious concerns that underfunding has left the courts service in administrative chaos. It recognises that modernisation, including use of better IT, is long- overdue, but is worried that vulnerable users of the court service with limited access to technology or low levels of literacy could be affected, which has serious implications for access to justice.
“We are concerned that a vulnerable person – a victim of crime, a woman seeking an order to protect her children, a person with learning difficulties – could be left trying to negotiate enough time at a library to file papers or tune in to an evidence hearing where they are trying to get justice,” said Committee Chair Bob Neill MP.
Justice Select Committee is also concerned that allowing unrepresented defendants to enter pleas online could lead to ‘clear risks to fairness’. The Committee says that it does not want video to be used for remand hearings until ‘robust’ piloting and investment in video equipment and WiFi has been undertaken. Video hearings have already been piloted successfully in some civil cases as reported by Brunel News.
“The Justice Select Committee is clearly focused on protecting access to justice for all and it is essential that the court system is properly resourced,” said James Burgoyne, Director – Claims & Technical, Brunel Professions. “However, the Committee has also recognised the great potential that electronic systems could have in delivering more efficient outcomes.”
“This report may well lead to a reassessment of HMCTS’ modernisation programme, but in the future, is still likely that we will see video hearings used in cases involving professional disputes, given that the concerns regarding literacy and access to IT are unlikely to apply to professionals. On the positive side, the changes could greatly reduce the cost and inconvenience for professional firms in defending poorly set out or poorly substantiated negligence claims.”
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